Storytelling Lessons for the New Year: Part One

Jan 4, 2017

Stories are a huge part of nonprofit communications, and not without reason. Whether it’s fundraising, general marketing, or face to face interactions; an organization’s story is what moves the individual on the receiving end of the communication to a desired action. Humans have had a long history with stories. For centuries, we’ve used the power of storytelling to connect with one another and understand the world around us from myriad perspectives. We think of stories as a cohesive narrative the illustrates an organization’s purpose and impact in a meaningful way that resonates emotionally and rationally with the person on the other end. But while everyone’s method of crafting and relaying their story differs, here are some lessons we learned about storytelling last year that are useful for everyone:

1. Your mission is not your story

Mission statements are often drilled into the minds of most nonprofit employees. But however eloquently this statement may be, a mission does not a story make. Think of it this way: your mission is your path to purpose, and your story is about your purpose and impact. Learn to separate the two and go beyond what feels familiar.

2. Move past programs

If they’re not talking missions, most nonprofits switch to talking about programs. It’s natural to want to talk about what you do, but if that’s all you do you’re limiting yourself in a sense. One of the reasons it’s important to go past talking about programs is that “what” your work looks like doesn’t necessarily always resonate with a person. We’ll get into this later, but it’s crucial to lead with why you’re doing what you do. Why? There’s a higher chance of shared ideals.

3. Focus on developing a narrative

As stated in the intro, stories are just narratives that illustrate purpose and impact while simultaneously evoking emotion in the listener or reader in way that’s also rational. When developing your stories, make sure that the final product touches hits each of these four points. Going this route helps you connect to an array of new and existing audience members who are attracted to varying elements of what you do.

4. Your story is rooted in a core message

Developing a core message is the first step to building out stories that share a cohesive narrative and continue to communicate the important things about your organization, though the characters may change. A core message is comprised of three parts:

  • Your Focus: The core challenge you address as an organization. It’s why you exist. It’s your purpose.
  • Your Strength: How you fulfill your mission and address your focus. It’s how do things a more proprietary sense.
  • Your Impact: What you do. The end result of your work which can take shape as programs, outcomes, and success stories.

Your core message will serve as a filter and reference point as you begin to write and identify stories. Refer back to this message and ask yourself if the story you’d like to tell addresses at least one of these elements. Though stories evolve, your core message is your thesis and that should always remain the same.

5. Everyone is a potential touchpoint

One of the biggest challenges nonprofits often face is that people tend to operate in silos, which can lead to a disjointed understanding of who you are and why you exist. This fact is one of the main reasons a core message is so important. While your staff and board will bring their unique personalities and passions into the stories they tell on behalf of the organization, a thorough understanding of that core message will keep things uniform in a sense.

But why does this matter? Well, everyone in your organization from the top down serves as a potential touch point with people from the outside. Each time someone representing your organization comes in contact with an individual on the phone, in the office or at an event, there’s an opportunity to make a meaningful connection that can yield much needed support. So make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to your core message so you’ve got the tightest narrative that leaves no room for misunderstanding and prevents a poor public perception of your organization.

6. Be proactive, not reactive

This lesson is quick and dirty. We know that we need stories all year long, whether for fundraising, grant-writing, marketing or some sort of public-facing event. What tends to end up happening, however, is that we wait for a need to arise before we develop a story. We then scramble to find anecdotes or documentation and the resulting stories tend to lack the heft necessary to make an impact. So be proactive! Get yourself and your team in shape so you can work on identifying and capturing relevant stories throughout the year, building up a library of resources instead of struggling to pull something out of thin air when a need presents itself.


The Wrap Up

The biggest part of developing a meaningful narrative for your organization is changing your behavior and approach. These first few lessons will help you lay the foundation for the eventual stories you’ll create. Next week we’ll get into some of the tactical ways to help you tell your story, like acquiring testimonials and leveraging the real life experiences of your beneficiaries to demonstrate impact.

You Might Also Enjoy:
There’s Always Room for a Story
The Great Fundraising Balancing Act
+ The 4 Components of a Fundraising Foundation


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