Taking a Long-Term Approach to Nonprofit Storytelling

May 18, 2020 by Sophie Thurber

Stack of books opened

Build Better Advocacy with a Plan for Nonprofit Storytelling

Nonprofit storytelling is a powerful tool, but it often falls off the radar when push comes to shove, probably because it takes significant time and people resources to do well. This post will walk you through why it should always be part of your planning and priorities, how to weave it into things you’re already doing (it doesn’t have to be a heavy lift if you do it a little at a time) and some of the elements of compelling storytelling. 

The purpose of nonprofit storytelling is to help to move your issue out of the wonky policy weeds and into the realm of its impact on everyday people. Stories should ideally answer the simple question: “What does this mean for me, for my family, and my community?” 

Bank Those Stories

It would be great if any time you needed a strong story you could snap your fingers and one would materialize. Unfortunately, it takes time and forethought to line up stories that are relevant and connective. Here are five simple ways to cultivate a nonprofit storytelling library that will do some long-term heavy lifting for your issue advocacy efforts. The idea here is to incorporate the process of gathering storytellers into your normal activities and long-term planning to leverage opportunities to expand your base of storytellers wherever possible.

1. Mine your events for storytellers

Your in-person events are likely to have some of your staunchest supporters in attendance. Take the time to ask them why they’re attending – they may have a compelling story that they’re willing to share with a wider audience. And of course, if they’re open to it, get a photo of them that you can pair with their story, or better yet, a video of them telling their story in their own words (don’t forget to bring releases to events!).

2. Stay in touch with your advocates

People don’t like to feel like you only come to them when you need something. Make sure your storytellers (committed and prospective) feel like they’re a part of your efforts, not a tool that you use and discard. This is something that can be done within the context of your regular email and SMS programs and can be enhanced further by more personal touches where it makes sense (e.g. upcoming events, thank you calls, etc.). 

3. Invest in tools that will help you to gather stories

There are a variety of digital tools out there that facilitate nonprofit storytelling by allowing people to easily create video testimonials and other forms of content that are emotionally connective and personal (some of these tools are featured in our 100 Best Campaign Tools post). Many of these tools also have other functionalities that are great for grassroots advocacy work.

4. Train and support your storytellers

Staying on message is an important part of any advocacy effort. Nonprofit storytelling is only as powerful as your storytellers, so make sure they have access to the resources and support they need to help them stay on track and hammer their message home.

5. Recruit storytellers with an equity and inclusion lens

Advocacy efforts are at their strongest when they can count supporters from all walks of life. As you recruit storytellers, put in the work to make sure that you’re listening to and actively engaging with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. This is not an exercise in ticking certain boxes, it’s about making sure your storytelling is as strong as possible and really represents the impact your issue has across your community. As with everything else on this list, this is a long-term process and should be baked into your larger program and planning.

Elements of a Compelling Story

Good nonprofit storytelling leverages your members’ or advocates’ personal stories to connect with a wider audience. Members and advocates are likely to have the best, most compelling stories. No matter what issue(s) your organization focuses on, supporters on the forefront of the issue embody the reason your organization does what it does. They speak to people in a way that a policy white paper cannot. Here are some tips for getting the most out of nonprofit storytelling:

1. Emotion and authenticity matter

A big pile of statistics on the need for real immigration reform is nowhere near as compelling as hearing someone speak about their personal struggle with the immigration system.

2. Context is key

A real person can give context to an issue, rooting it in everyday life. Beyond emotion, they can provide the who, what, where, when and how all in one voice.

3. People like pictures

We’re visual creatures. Pictures or video of your supporters talking on camera, telling their story can be very compelling. Great video or images can add depth to your message for people who are just learning about your issue. This does not have to be done in a glitzy way—sometimes a cell phone video can feel much more authentic and powerful than a fancy, professionally produced product. Just answering some simple questions honestly and openly can be very effective if you get the approach right.

4. Help storytellers hone their stories

I listed this above because it’s an important part of planning, but it’s also a key element in for the actual storytelling as well. Some people have a natural gift to tell their story, many of us don't. Some can tell a great story but then they forget to ask for follow up. It takes practice and time. You can hold a customized training on storytelling that can give your team the skills, resources, and confidence they need to be a strong advocate on your issue. Once they get the hang of it, the public will be connecting with your issue in a whole new way.

TLDR

Nonprofit storytelling is a great way to root your issue and message in its real-life impact, but it takes time, planning and a commitment to building long-term relationships. There are many tools in the digital space that can make this an easier lift and help you to create a story library, but tools are only half the story. So plan ahead, bake storyteller recruitment into your other activities and invest in regular communication with your supporters.

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