If you work at a nonprofit organization, you probably already know how challenging marketing and promoting your mission can be. Engaging donors, persuading them to give money or time, and keeping them coming back can be tough, especially with limited resources.
Fundraising and nonprofit marketing professionals have to capture their supporters’ attention, educate them about their cause, and inspire them to get more involved. While marketing trends may come and go, one technique continues to deliver on all of these fronts: nonprofit storytelling.
When you tell your donors a story, you activate their empathy, help them build connections between ideas and action, and translate facts into feelings–all of which fuels giving and promotes donor retention. Facts and figures have their place, but stories are what stick in people’s minds and warm their hearts.
But what makes a nonprofit story compelling, both emotionally and visually? How can you create those stories and raise more friends and funds for your cause?
Good things come in threes. We’re here to help with 3 pieces of critical nonprofit storytelling advice, 3 tips for using visuals to amp up your storytelling, and 3 campaigns to get you inspired.
How To Tell A Compelling Nonprofit Story
The difference between a story that moves your donors and one that leaves them cold isn’t dramatic details or incredible results. It lies in planning for what you hope your story will accomplish, using storytelling techniques to make your point, and helping bridge the gap between what you want your donors to know and what you want them to do.
1. Be Intentional
Storytelling is a tactic in service of a larger goal, so first you’ll need to be clear about what that goal is. Then, you can be intentional with both the stories you choose and how you tell them.
Think carefully about what you want to accomplish. How are you trying to influence or persuade your audience, and how will the story help you do that?
Common storytelling goals include:
- Raise $XXXX
- Improve click-throughs
- Grow membership
- Improve conversion on a landing page
- Help donors understand a new problem
- Thank donors for their impact
- Inspire loyalty and trust
2. Activate Empathy
Stories work when they make us feel. They help us imagine ourselves in a situation, and actually trigger chemical activity in the brain that promotes empathy and prosocial behavior (like making a donation!).
Of course, not every story engages empathy. Some stories are boring, or don’t provoke any specific emotional response beyond, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” In order for nonprofit storytelling to inspire giving, it has to hit the audience emotionally.
In order to get the feelings flowing, your story will need:
- Emotional vocabulary
Don’t skip the emotional impact of the situation you’re describing. Encourage the subjects of your stories to talk about how they felt, as well as the facts of what happened.
- Sensory details
Including details from all five senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch–helps the brain immerse itself in the story.
- A central character
It’s easier for the audience to connect with a single, specific character than a vague group. Focus your story on one person’s experience–it gives the audience someone to cheer for and identify with.
- A storytelling structure
A storytelling, or narrative, structure is simply a system for arranging the information in your story in an interesting and engaging way. Classic structures like the Hero’s Journey or Aristotle’s 3 Act Structure can provide a framework that keeps the audience wanting to know more.
3. Make Connections
Stories are all about building connections. They make the audience feel emotionally connected to your cause, and can help make connections between esoteric ideas and real-life actions. Spell out these connections in your story — show how what donors do impacts the story, how change happens, and why it matters.
This infographic from the World Wildlife Fund introduces the world’s sea turtles, shows us what’s threatening them, and then explicitly tells us what to do. It doesn’t expect us to independently conclude that we can help reduce bycatch numbers by purchasing sustainable seafood, it makes the connection for us.
Supercharge Your Story With Visuals
The web has made visual storytelling more important than ever for nonprofits. Photos, videos, infographics, and images can all supercharge your story’s impact.
Visual storytelling isn’t just trendy, it has real benefits.
1. It’s Memorable
Pictures can help you remember things. If you hear a piece of information, your recall drops off fairly quickly–you may only remember about 10% of what you learned three days later. Add an image, and the amount you remember can jump up to 65%.
2. Visual Storytelling Boosts Engagement
Just the word “video” in an email subject line increases open rates and click-throughs.
3. Images Help Us Learn
Much of learning is visual—the brain devotes a lot of space to processing visual stimuli and it’s pretty good at it. Think about how much easier it is to assemble something with a diagram than with just a list of steps. Images can help us grasp complicated concepts better and learn new things faster.
4. Visual Cues Build Your Brand
Visual elements like logos, colors, and typography can help establish your organization’s brand, helping your supporters recognize your content. This is useful in a world where they’re constantly bombarded with messages and images, and need to quickly sift out what’s relevant to them.
3 Tips For Using Images In Your Stories
1. Get Started With Infographics
You don’t need to jump straight to professional photographers and video campaigns–even a simple infographic can deliver the benefits of visual content.
Nonprofit infographic templates make them easy to create on a budget, without hiring a designer. You can add charts, maps, and text to visualize data, and help your supporters understand your impact.
This infographic from Unicef is visually arresting, but when you break it down, it’s text and icons on top of a photo–something you can easily make yourself with a template. The piece uses a Problem–Solution storytelling structure; the left side of the graphic establishes the problem, the right side explains the solution.
Infographics can be particularly effective when you want your supporters to understand complicated data. Consider this illustration from WaterAid.
The facts about global groundwater might be hard for the average person to visualize. Global groundwater has decreased by 22% in the last decade, but what does that really mean? By using simple pictures of objects on a scale laypeople can readily understand, WaterAid makes it easy to see the larger problem. It’s simple visual storytelling, but it works!
Infographics are also a great way to show your donors what their donations can accomplish. This infographic from the United Way of Laurens County contrasts what a dollar a week can buy vs. what it can do when donated.
Video allows you to introduce your audience to the people they’re helping and the places you work, and give them behind-the-scenes access to your cause. It can have tremendous results–with the right video marketing strategy, 57% of people who watch a nonprofit video go on to donate.
Take a look at this clever video from the Rainforest Alliance. It sets up a contrast: what upsetting news about the rainforest makes you feel like you should do, vs. what you actually can do. While sharing a solid number of terrifying images and facts, it tells an elaborate story of a man’s ill-advised journey to save the rainforest, then instructs the viewer on what to do instead: look for the Rainforest Alliance seal on products they buy (“Follow the Frog”). It makes the connection between facts, feelings, and problematic activism, then shows what action to take, how to do it, and why it’s easy.
While this video is definitely a major production, a sense of humor and clear calls-to-action are free for every nonprofit.
Video doesn’t have to be expensive or overly time-consuming. These days, you can get good results with a mobile phone camera. Film a walk-through of a program site or interview a client, volunteer, or staff person. Boom–you have video content!
Even a slideshow of photographs can become dynamic when you use it to tell a story. Look at this one, composed entirely of photos, music, and a voice-over storyteller.
Visuals are a storytelling asset, but not a substitute for content. Keep your intention, empathy activation, and connection-building central, rather than getting distracted with bells and whistles. A targeted, emotionally-engaging, donor-empowering story wins out over empty flash.
This video from Dressember is simple. It’s a series of women talking to the camera, introducing their campaign and inviting others to join. It doesn’t have multiple locations, fancy editing, or big emotional arcs. Instead, it is straightforward, earnest, and inviting.
This infographic from No Kid Hungry isn’t particularly complex. It uses five colors, along with text and icons to illustrate the facts about kids eating breakfast. What makes it effective is the storytelling. It reverses the Problem–Solution storytelling structure, starting with the happy outcomes of kids eating breakfast, then hitting the viewer with the harsh realities of the problem, finishing with a call-to-action to learn how to help.
3 Excellent Storytelling Fundraising Campaigns To Inspire You
Let’s take a look at these nonprofit storytelling practices in action, with three distinctly different organizations.
The Storytelling Structure: The story begins with emotional, shocking details about a hypothetical 12-year-old girl, establishing the problem. Then it shows what’s possible by revisiting the same timeline with different results.
The Visuals: The animation uses a representative “girl shape” without many details, which makes her a versatile stand-in for 50 million girls. It uses clocks, timelines, and graphs to visualize data and urgency. The symbolic images are simple, but still evoke feelings, like the haunting grasping hands reaching for “our girl,” and her triumphant leaps away from them in the second version of the timeline
Emotional Content: The quotes from a surgeon and transplant recipient make the information human and meaningful.
Organized Information: There is a lot of information in this infographic, but it stays manageable because it’s placed in distinct sections for facts, improved outcomes, donation information, and how to become a donor.
World Bicycle Relief shows the difference a bicycle can make in this short video about Georgina, a widowed dairy farmer in Zambia. With a strong central character, compelling visuals, and a clear narrative structure, it gets the nonprofit storytelling job done in an engaging and upbeat way.
Storytelling Structure: It establishes the problem (delivering milk is difficult because of the distance), and then shows the solution (bicycle), and how the solution changes lives.
Strong Central Character: Georgina explains in her own words, with the details from her own life.
Emotional Details: “To fail to deliver milk even once is a loss.” “It was really hectic, it was bad.” “It is difficult, because it is far.” “In my case, I have found out that this is keeping me going.”
Tell Your Story
Nonprofit storytelling can help you reach your goals, inspire your donors, and deepen the relationship between your community and your cause. When you set an intention, activate empathy, and create connections, and supercharge with visuals, your fundraising and marketing will thrive.