Nonprofit Storytelling to Grow your Donor Community

More people than ever are donating their hard-earned dollars to nonprofits. In fact, 2022 saw a 4.1% increase in all charitable donations compared to the year before, and donations given online specifically grew another 12.1% compared to 2021. In the age of a looming recession and record-high inflation rates, how can you make sure your nonprofit is connecting with potential donors in ways that lead to increased or sustaining donations?

Illustration of hands coming out of a book to symbolize nonprofit storytelling

By telling stories of impact: emotional, real-life examples of how your organization’s mission has made a lasting change. Let’s talk about how you can make better use of nonprofit storytelling and traditional content marketing tactics to win more donations.

Nonprofit Storytelling At a Glance

  1. What is nonprofit storytelling?
  2. 10 Tips for better nonprofit storytelling
  3. 8 Formats for nonprofit storytelling that makes an impact
  4. Nonprofit Storytelling FAQs
  5. Partnering with an agency that understands nonprofits

What is nonprofit storytelling?

Nonprofit storytelling is the practice of sharing stories about an organization and its impact in order to inspire action. Storytelling can be used to connect people to a cause, inspire them to act, and create a deeper understanding of the work that nonprofits do. When done well, nonprofit storytelling can be a powerful tool for change.

Nonprofit storytelling provides real-life examples of how nonprofit organizations’ missions, services, and impact have all been felt. You can leverage strong stories in all aspects of your fundraising initiatives, such as:

No matter the field your nonprofit operates within, you need to create narratives and angles that inspire your audience members to understand the urgent need to take action.

From donating to volunteering, spreading the word, joining a committee, or attending an event – your organization can leverage stories about the work you do to inspire any one of those actions.

Once you know the goal, you need specific, moving stories that emotionally connect with your audience on different platforms and in different channels that are appropriate for that action.

Nonprofit storytellers are the experts that bring all this to life. But this level of storytelling is more complex than just putting pen to paper.

10 Tips for better nonprofit storytelling

Every nonprofit’s story is different, but successful stories tend to share some key characteristics. Here are ten we’ve found to be crucial to better story construction.

1. Include storytelling in your marketing strategy

Any story should be told with intention, and this starts with a thoughtful, well-crafted marketing and content strategy. What stories do you want to tell and when? How should people respond to them? Once you’ve answered these questions, you can sit down and build out a week-by-week, month-by-month, quarter-by-quarter and year-over-year plan for success.

Let’s say you’re a nonprofit organization that helps connect families with the shelter and resources they need to get back on their feet and build better lives. You could focus on a new theme each quarter and tell the stories of those you’ve helped, all under certain themes, and post them out on social media to drive donations.

For instance, in the spring you could focus on themes of renewal. Create blog articles and videos about constituents who’ve just begun to turn their lives around with help from your organization. Then share those articles and videos across your social media and in your email campaigns.

Then in the summer, you can craft stories about families that are growing and thriving thanks to your organization. You could share stories about employees in your workforce program who’ve built new careers or families who’ve managed to attain greater stability through more permanent housing opportunities.

2. Tell real-life stories

Not every nonprofit organization helps people, but when yours does, make sure that human element shines through. No organization can run without that human touch, and centering your story on that is a great place to start.

People want to see who they’re helping and how. If you have stories about the lives your nonprofit has helped improve – tell them. Use real-life photos, examples they’re comfortable with, resources you connected them with, and quotes to showcase the candidness of their situation. Realness begets connection, don’t forget it.

Now sometimes this can get tricky. Depending on the kind of work your organization does, anonymity may be an issue, or there may be other ethical reasons why you might hesitate to disclose particular details about people’s situations.

In that case, try to create vivid but theoretical examples of the work you do. Describe the typical journey of a family you’ve helped, or tell someone’s story with identifying particulars removed.

3. Use emotion, but use it wisely

There’s a golden rule when it comes to writing and storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Let’s say you’re telling a story about a father who overcame addiction and was reunified with his kids. Rather than focusing on the suffering of it all, focus on the connection – let the facts speak for themselves. Your resources helped him finally hold his daughter again, be a part of her life, and support her when she needs it most.

Emotion is a powerful force, but it needs to be wielded cautiously. There’s such a thing as writing that’s too personal and too emotional, and walking that fine line is tricky work. But it’s rewarding and highly impactful when done right.

4. Focus on ethics when telling stories

When your organization is helping underrepresented communities or even helping with causes that are more difficult to talk about, it’s best to keep an eye on your approach. Just look at the fictional, yet poignant representation of unaware nonprofits such as We Got Y’all from HBO’s Insecure, whose logo features a white hand holding up a group of Black youth.

There are ways to tell your stories sans the savior complex, and it fares better to shed that opportunistic nature before it gets out of hand, like you saw above.

5. It’s OK to repurpose content

Good stories serve a purpose, and you can make them serve you in the long run. Potency yields longevity, and using content in your favor – across video, audio, visual, and social media channels — can allow for different angles and visceral reactions to the story at hand.

It’s especially important to understand how different storytelling media are consumed on different channels and create platform-specific messaging. Let’s say you start with an article that you write for your blog, with photos and maybe some interview footage compiled in a video. Add a quick voiceover with captions to that video footage to create some short-form, vertical video for YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and TikTok, then share the long-form video on Facebook and YouTube. Turn that into a carousel for LinkedIn, and summarize it into an email appeal.

 

6. Plan ahead to source new stories

Repurposing content is great, but keep looking for opportunities to tell new stories as well. Your nonprofit marketing needs to have a wide reach, and sourcing new stories should be a priority in your content strategy, whether that be searching for direct impact examples or simply touching base with other professionals out in the field.

What might seem boring or mundane to you because you live it is new or novel to your donors, the community, and your potential constituents. Just think – in addition to driving fundraising, wouldn’t a great benefit be if other potential constituents can see how you helped others in their exact situation?

Storytelling done well can be the key to expanding your mission and fulfilling more needs.

7. Use visuals whenever you can

As digital storytelling is on the rise, so is the age of visual consumption. People need to see the impact to believe or even feel it, and creating visual content (think videos, slide decks, infographics, charts, and diagrams) is an easy way to streamline nonprofit storytelling.

While this might seem daunting without a full-scale design team, any great nonprofit marketing agency can help, and we’re big fans of tools like Canva to add graphic appeal to your stories. If you want to create something really unique, check out Shorthand for a neat approach to visual storytelling!

8. Multimedia assets are your friends

Telling your nonprofit’s story across multiple mediums can really help showcase who your organization really is. Think: digital ads, social media, search, retargeting campaigns, updating brand assets, embracing print, direct mailers, TV, radio, and even OLV.

One great day or two of shooting video can generate enough footage to use for at least six months, provided you can access tools to create voice-overs for all of that b-roll. If you don’t have in-house videographers (honestly, who does? What a gift that would be!), make sure that the marketing agency you work with gives you access to all of the raw footage they shoot for you so you can use and re-use it for all of your future marketing needs.

9. Add depth with long-form content

Yes, long-form is still in (and never really went anywhere).

While attention spans are shorter than ever, you can still grab your audience’s attention with accessible, well-written content. Focus on designs that are skimmable, so you can guide your readers to pinpointing the information they need to know in very little time.

As an added bonus, you can use written content to optimize for search engines, too, which helps your nonprofit be found when someone is searching for the programs or opportunities you provide.

10. Always connect everything back to your organization

Your nonprofit storytelling efforts should act as an extension of your organization. Branding should always be consistent, and referencing your nonprofit’s values and your own story when weaving in other impactful stories is the best way to stay clear, concise, and genuine.

8 Formats for nonprofit storytelling that make an impact

Successfully selling a strong story boils down to much more than the story alone.

In Jeff Patton’s 2005 article titled “It’s All in How You Slice It,” the acclaimed strategist coined the idea of “story mapping”: the act of structuring your user and audience’s journey through levels of engagement with your nonprofit. The goal? To create a memorable and delightful experience that your audience will want to share, donate and come back to.

The takeaway here is clear: stories matter, but how you organize them and connect them to the design of your user journey influences how much those stories matter to your audience. The goal is to connect the story, the medium in which you tell it, and its place in your marketing strategy so that they all work together to maximize impact.

Here are some other formats you can use to tell your nonprofit’s story.

1. Short-form social media posts

Social media is a great and cost-effective way to connect with audiences, whether it’s organic (posting naturally) or paid push. With quick, snackable posts that captivate readers, you can be on your way to earning more dollars. Any social media platform that serves your goals and lets you connect with your community can be the right platform, but several of the nonprofits we’ve worked with do particularly well on Facebook and LinkedIn.

2. Video ads on television or social media

Social media platforms are where it’s at for nonprofit storytelling, and video is dominating on social media more and more every day. 15 to 30 second videos on Instagram and TikTok are good low commitment ways to grab people’s attention and introduce them to your organization. Longer form videos are great for people who’ve started to follow you and want to find out more. Engaging visuals and emotionally compelling stories will push your audience’s pens toward their checkbooks.

3. Marketing collateral

Digital or printed brochures, eBooks, email newsletters, videos and even point-of-sale posters are all great ways to tell a story. These formats work especially well to keep new prospective donors engaged and keep past donors informed about what their donations have accomplished.

4. Case studies

What better way of telling your story than by building out a collection of your organization’s direct impact? Case studies are a great way to not only showcase the emotional side of said impact, but to emphasize the monetary importance of it all. After all, donors love putting their money where their mouth is, and they like to see these dollars at work.

5. Long-form stories and guides

Long-form has long been a reliable and close confidant for nonprofits far and wide. When you can showcase an in-depth story with gorgeous graphics, compelling language, emotional resonance and strong results, the only thing donors will be wondering is why they didn’t donate more money sooner.

6. Conferences and events

Conferences and events are great ways to network, hear examples of success stories, and stay ahead of the times.

Whether you’re attending conferences to hone your social media craft, hear from thought leaders, or learn how to market your nonprofit on a budget, there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from events and conferences.

7. Impact reports

If there’s one thing we want to emphasize here, it’s that storytelling drives impact. With annual reports and impact reports, you’re able to combine the emotional with the tactical – by showcasing the numbers and exactly who those numbers have helped.

Take Girls Who Code’s 2021 Impact Report, a beautifully-designed, interactive piece that demonstrates the changes they’ve made by the numbers, showcasing who they helped through portraits of individuals accompanied by metrics.

Better yet, the report was built right into their website, so donors could easily access the transparently laid out numbers and feel good knowing that their direct contribution made such a difference.

8. Fundraising campaigns that pivot to new issues

Your fundraising campaigns need to continue telling your story over time, so as to continue resonating with legacy donors and begin connecting with new ones. How? By pivoting your messaging to important ongoing issues.

Take DIGDEEP, a nonprofit that works to ensure every American has access to clean, running water, and their major pivot during the 2020 pandemic.

By highlighting the stories of frontline workers who had no access to clean water at a time they needed it most and pivoting their messaging to align with the “wash your hands” frenzy of the same year.

As a result of this carefully-crafted storytelling, DIGDEEP’s World Water Day Donations nearly doubled to $130,044 from 2019.

And by 2022, DIGDEEP had pivoted again to a matching campaign, promising to match every donation up to $200,000, and raised $165,223.92 by donations alone. Trust the pivot. It can truly pay off.

Nonprofit Storytelling FAQs

Below are some other commonly asked questions people have about telling great nonprofit stories.

How do nonprofits use storytelling?

Successful nonprofit marketing campaigns use storytelling to appeal to donors’ empathy and demonstrate the difference nonprofits make in people’s lives. In fact, a study by Harvard Business Review found that emotionally connected customer relationships are 52% more valuable to an organization, nonprofits or otherwise. This means that emotionally connected audiences are more likely to get involved with a cause.

“We need really good storytelling embedded into our organization,” says Justine Burke, the Vice President of Marketing at Metropolitan Ministries, one of Big Sea’s nonprofit clients. She says that nowadays everyone needs to play a part in telling your story.

“It’s not just Marketing’s job anymore, it’s everyone’s.”

How does storytelling drive donations for nonprofits?

According to Network for Good, 82% of nonprofits use storytelling in their fundraising materials. 75% said they use them specifically in their communications with donors. But why does storytelling work?

A narrative always consists of some kind of conflict and resolution. That doesn’t have to mean an argument or struggle. A conflict could be something as simple as a baby in a cartoon who needs to reach the top of the fridge where the cookies are hidden. Narratives present some obstacle to be overcome, and then they stage the solution to that obstacle. Overcoming obstacles is exactly what nonprofits do everyday, so storytelling is a natural way for organizations to show impact.

At our core, we’re all emotional beings, and we’re driven to action by our response and connection to a cause. Nonprofit storytelling builds those connections between organizations and their donors.

What are the elements of nonprofit storytelling?

Think back to some of the fundamental features of stories you learned about in English class. Stories begin with a main character: a protagonist the audience can identify with who has something they want to achieve. They’re faced with a challenge or an obstacle that they must act to overcome. In the end they’re transformed by their experience.

The basic building blocks are simple, but the possibilities are endless. With these components in mind, you can show your audience the problem you’ve set out to solve, the effect that problem has on people’s lives, and the good you can do when you’re able to address these problems.

What are some creative ideas for nonprofit storytelling?

These should spark some “aha” ideas for you to create.

  • Share some ‘day in the life’ stories about your program employees, team members, and volunteers. What kinds of work are they doing each day and how do they feel about it? Share stories of emotional and physical impact.
  • Write about the effort that goes into orchestrating some of your biggest accomplishments or events. How many people were involved? What were the steps in the process? What obstacles popped up that had to be managed? How did your constituents and volunteers help make it happen?
  • Talk about how a new service offering, an expanded location, or a new collection came to be. What happened behind the scenes to get to that point? What need are you fulfilling? Why is it important?

Trust an agency that understands nonprofit storytelling

At Big Sea, we’ve connected with countless nonprofit organizations’ stories, and have a track record of finding new, compelling ways to tell their stories.

From grassroots community programs to cultural organizations to big national brands – we’ve helped carefully craft stories for clients like Metropolitan Ministries, The Sun Magazine, Champions for Children and Mote Marine Aquarium.

Let’s tell your story together.