Monday to Wednesday, 10am - 4pm, ET
1.855.281.5499 (toll free)

How to Attract and Engage Supporters through Storytelling

June 2, 2011

By: Tierney Smith

This article is Part 5 in our series on Technology Planning for nonprofits. In Part 4, we discussed how to use software to track and engage your volunteers, clients, donors and funders.

There are over 161,000 nonprofits and charities in Canada, which means a lot of organizations doing a lot of great work. Where do you fit in? How are you different? Why should anyone give you their money or time? Is the work you are doing being shared and celebrated?

Knowing how to tell your organization’s story is the key to turning strangers into supporters - volunteers, donors, advocates and funders. For example, according to the 2011 Millennial Donor report, the top motivator for Millennials (ages 20-30) to donate (85%) is a compelling mission or cause.

Once you know how to tell your story, it becomes a part of everything you do - from offline (meeting people, events, direct mail, grant proposals, etc.) to online (video, social media, website, etc.).


What story will you tell?

There many ways to tell a story, and many stories all around you - which one do you tell? It all depends on your goal:

Start with determining your goal - in other words, what are you trying to achieve? Who is your target audience? Based on this, think about what story would best help you meet your goal. From there you can develop a content strategy - how you will share your story. As mentioned above, there are many offline and online channels to take advantage of. Online channels commonly used by nonprofits include:

  • Website text/article/case study
  • Blog
  • Podcast
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Photos
  • Video
  • Email Newsletter


Getting Started: the story of your organization

If you haven’t taken the time to do this already, your first goal should be to explain your organization’s mission. You already tell your organization’s story all the time - including every time some asks “so, where do you work?” - but how well are you telling the story? Do people who hear your answer want to know more, or are they bored by the end of the first sentence?

Told aloud, this type of story is often called an elevator pitch. If you think you already have yours down, compare these two examples for the same hypothetical nonprofit:

I’m the Executive Director for the Stop Homelessness Coalition of the Greater Metropolitan Area of the District of Columbia that maintains facilities that provide shelter for homeless constituents.  Our client-focused educational process creates an environment that fosters dignity and provides value for not only our clients but also stakeholders and the community at large. I’m Executive Director for a Nonprofit that runs homeless shelters.   We help about 1,300 people per night get out of the cold during the winter months and team up with other nonprofits to provide food for them.  What makes us different is that we have a successful job training program that helps many homeless families back on their feet.

Source: NonprofitCMS blog: Building a Good Elevator Pitch for your Nonprofit

Which nonprofit would you rather give money to?

Most people will likely connect more with the elevator pitch on the right as it gets straight to the heart of what the nonprofit does and why they’re different, and it uses simple, jargon-free language.

Telling this story aloud is just one (very important) way of sharing it. This should also be the first impression that visitors get when they come to your website, and it should be what they read on your About Us page. A version of this should be your bio on Facebook and Twitter, and maybe also at the bottom of your email newsletter.


Next Steps: integrating storytelling into your work

There are many other goals that you can have for telling a story, such as:

  • raising money
  • raising awareness about an issue
  • getting supporters to sign a petition or take some other kind of action
  • recruiting volunteers

Once you’ve picked a goal, think about your target audience. Be as specific as possible; it might help to invent a few people who would be part of your audience and picture how they would react. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What are they like? What is their life like?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • How can I solve their problem?
  • What do I want them to do?
  • How might they resist?
  • How can I best reach them?

Source: adapted from slide:ology by Nancy Duarte


Understanding your goal will help you decide what story to tell and how to tell it. Recently the trend has been to tell personal stories of your clients, which can be powerful, but the concept of storytelling must be understood more broadly. To illustrate this, M+R Strategic Services did some tests with nonprofit campaigns and found that personal stories don’t always raise more money - in fact they sometimes they raise less then a more generic, statistics-based appeal. Instead of personal stories on their own, they suggest using an explaining story or a compelling story.

An explaining story connects an individual case (real or hypothetical) with the broader issue. For example:

"When you're a starving child, it's nearly impossible to fight through a crowd of adults. Right now in Pakistan, that's one of the only ways to get food — so thousands of children are going hungry."
"On a late summer day in Alaska, a polar bear and her one year-old cub began swimming in search of sea ice to hunt for food… Nine days later, the polar bear's treacherous 427 mile swim ended when she found a thin sheet of sea ice. But sadly, by the time she returned to shore from her journey, she had lost an incredible 107 pounds and her cub was gone."

Compelling stories don’t just illustrate the issue, they include a call to action. For example:

"Earlier today, I was with President Obama as he signed the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' into law.
You were part of a defining moment in the struggle for equality. We never backed down. We never gave up. And as anti-gay leadership gets ready to take control of the House of Representatives, we'll need to bring every bit of that creativity and tenacity to bear."

Source: M+R's guest blog on NTEN - Making Stories Work for your Org: What the Data Says

The New Organizing Institute (NOI) developed a framework for telling compelling stories called the Public Narrative, which was used successfully in the Obama 2008 campaign. They break a story down into three components:

Source: NOI Toolkit

  • Story of Self

Answer the question: why am I here? This helps build trust and helps your listener relate to you as you share your values and the choices you have made to get you to where you are now.

  • Story of Us

Answer the question: why are we here? Tell about how we have faced challenges together before and made choices that allowed us to overcome those challenges.

  • Story of Now

Answer the question: why is this relevant for us now? This is your call to action.

To learn more about the Public Narrative framework, see the resources in the NOI Toolkit.

Content Strategy

Once you have your story it’s time to share it, and this is where your content strategy comes into play. There are many channels for telling your story online and used well, this variety can help your organization reach your target audience - but it can also feel overwhelming and time consuming. To make things more manageable, keep in mind:

  • It’s ok to reuse content. In fact it’s not just ok, it’s highly recommended since it’s a more efficient use of your limited time and resources. Try out different ways of re-purposing old content, such as using quotes from a blog post as status updates on Facebook or Twitter, or making a video from a story that got a lot of click-throughs in your email newsletter.
  • It’s ok to fail. Take baby steps - experiment with different channels and see what works for you (keeping in mind that you may not get the results you are looking for right away). For example you don’t have to start out with a fancy professional video - first try making a simple video yourself or even telling the same story in your blog.

To make the best use of each channel, consider the audience being targeted and the most appropriate type of content. For example, consider who is on Facebook and what type of content works well on this channel. Almost 18 million Canadians are on Facebook (that’s about 50% of the population) and half of them are 18-34 years old (you can get even more detailed stats through sites like Facebook is all about keeping in touch with friends and family and content must be short (though video works well too, and you can also link to external content such as an article on your website), engaging and easily shareable. Once you’ve created content somewhere else, it’s easy to share it on Facebook, and you’ll probably want to post every day or two. If you are on Facebook for personal reasons, consider what nonprofits you care about enough to follow in your spare time and what kind of content would draw you in.

For an example of how different channels can be leveraged to share different types of content, see how CUSO-VSO uses technology for digital storytelling.


Your Website: Bringing it all together

Your website is the heart of your online presence and the best place to bring everything together - case studies, blog, videos, social media, etc. But don’t make the mistake of letting all the little pieces make your site confusing and overwhelming - as a whole, your website should simply and clearly convey the story of your organization. Gateway to the Arts’ recent website redesign is a good example of a simple and clean site:

Marketing blogger Kivi Leroux Miller illustrates this very clearly in the case of food banks. She points out that food banks have a fairly simple mission: give food to hungry people. Let this be the focus on your website and don’t let events or statistics create clutter and get in the way of your message. The same principle applies to all nonprofits - go back to your elevator speech that states your core purpose and base your website around it.


Related Resources

Content Rules - a book review by Beth Kanter on Content Strategy

How CUSO-VSO uses technology to share their story - a case study of CUSO-VSO's use of digital storytelling including podcasts, blogs and video

Storytelling: Up Close and Personal - tips on telling your organization’s story (for example: does your organization have a touching and personal story behind why it was started? share it!)

7 Ways to Repurpose Old Content into New - practical ideas for reusing content

Food Banks: Don’t Bury the Story! - An illustration of how food banks (and all nonprofits) can improve their website through simple, clear messaging

Check Facebook - one example of a source of statistics and demographics of social networking sites

New Organizing Institute’s Toolbox - resources for learning and teaching the Public Narrative framework for storytelling

Making Stories Work for your Org: What the Data Says - research on the impact of different types of stories in a campagin

Building a Good Elevator Pitch for your Nonprofit - what to keep in mind when writing a nonprofit elevator pitch

Elevator Pitches for Good Causes - videos of nonprofit executives giving their elevator pitch. Which ones make you want to donate or get involved, and which ones leave you with no idea of what the nonprofit actually does?