The Power of Storytelling – A Nonprofit Essential: 3 Steps for Success

In 2020, COVID-19 entered our world. As our communities grappled with the global health crisis, a common theme has been connection – finding it, cherishing it and growing from it.

One of the ways we found connection while being physically separated was through storytelling. Think about some of the stories that you’ve heard in the last year – perhaps one story or image has stuck with you, or maybe another moved you to action.

Why do you think that is?

From the most renowned brands to the “mom-and-pop” shop down the street, everyone understands the power and nostalgia behind a good story. In fact, the term “nonprofit storytelling” has become a bit of a buzzword in the philanthropic space – and for good reason. Stories are powerful; for nonprofits, they are transformative and essential.

Why is Storytelling Essential for Nonprofits?

  • Stories leave footprints on our hearts.
    • You can remember stories that someone told you years ago. Psychologically, our brains are wired to remember and respond to narrative. According to “The Science of Storytelling,” by Joshua VanDeBrake, “It [stories] causes the release of oxytocin and makes the audience place themselves into that character’s story, connecting on a deeper level.”
  • Unlike your favorite candy bar, stories are easy to share.
    • Innately, humans are storytellers! Whether it be funny, sad, happy, or embarrassing, we love to tell stories. Storytelling happens over dinner, coffee and even the most unexpected places because they are an easy and meaningful way to connect with others.
  • Stories appeal to the emotions, moving people to action.
    • If a Superbowl ad can cause the waterworks, a story about your nonprofit’s impact has the same potential. As a nonprofit, you have the power to capitalize upon the most impactful and emotive stories in your organization’s history. If told the right way, your vault of stories will naturally invite others to become part of the bigger narrative.
  • Stories are the best way to demonstrate impact.
    • In comparison to other communication tools, the art and science of storytelling can truly demonstrate the impact of giving in transformative ways. Your organizational impact spreads the spirit of giving by recruiting new donors and compelling your existing donors to continue to support, year after year.

Avoid Common Mistakes

There are a few common mistakes often used in the generation and production of stories.

Here’s what to avoid:

  • Too Much Data
    • While numbers are a great way to demonstrate impact, be conscientious of overusing them, as numbers do not inspire the giving spirit as well as stories can. However, donors often ask for supporting data and it’s important to have it handy. Remember that any data points should further support an emotional response, not the other way around. Put your best foot forward with an unforgettable story and leave the data in your back pocket.
  • Organizational/Corporate Stories (History)
    • Individual stories are more powerful than organizational stories. The history of your organization is important, but it doesn’t pack the same punch. Put it on the “About” page, but don’t spend much time on it during your donor meetings.
  • Standalone Facts
    • Using facts alone, like “There is no cure for cancer,” isn’t enough to move people to action. Without a story, people are going to be left without a tangible reason to donate their money or time.
  • Poor Storytelling
    • So, you have the winning story. Great! The delivery of your story is equally important. Verbally, it is easy to ramble and include unnecessary details. It’s also easy to ramble in writing. When you are packaging your story, be sure to follow the ‘story arc’ seen below.

Storytelling Steps

It’s likely that your organization has hundreds of untold stories; stories that are bursting at the seams to be heard!

Here are three steps to tell those stories to arrive at the happily ever after!

Step 1: Uncover 2-3 great stories.

Spend time looking back and collecting (from your inbox, memories, etc.) a few of your favorite stories. Think of those mission moments that can connect supporters to your cause and your impact. Maybe there are a couple stories that are already in your rotation. These can be the reason you were founded, or a recent transformation that happened to your organization. Or it’s a testimonial from someone you’ve worked with. The possibilities are endless!

Now, you may feel like these stories have already been told too many times. By using the story arc in Step 2 (keep reading), you’ll give those stories new life! Remember: a good story is always worth repeating. You can also find great stories by asking others involved in your organization.

Think board members, staff, volunteers, and even donors. Most importantly, those who have been on the receiving end of your nonprofit will likely have the most impactful stories to share.

“One of the biggest mistakes we see nonprofits make is never telling the stories of their donors. Those stories can be the most effective because your audience begins to see themselves as a part of your organization,” explains Jesse Lane, CEO & Founder of goodmakerU by Branches Mission Lab.

When you start asking around, you may develop an entire library of stories to tell!

Step 2: Map out your story using the classic story arc.

Used in all of our favorite movies, the story arc is our go-to model for great storytelling. With the story arc, you can map out the narrative with building tension that draws people to the edge of their seats.

After setting context and introducing characters, use a series of challenges and crisis events to build tension for your audience.

Finally, bring the story to the climax moment when everything changes for your main character. Finish the story with falling action, or denouement, when things happen quickly and all fall into place.

Think of your most used story within your organization. Does it follow the story arc?
To help you map this out, download a complimentary, fill-in-the-blank template of the Story Arc.

Step 3: Tell (and retell) your stories in creative ways.

The way in which a story is told is almost as important as the content itself. Think outside of the box. Consider repurposing your best stories in multiple formats, including:

  • Photography
  • Power of Video Storytelling
  • Written in an email
  • Written on your blog/website
  • From stage at an event
  • A series of social media posts

Practice your storytelling every chance you get and do so as if no one is watching. You’ll continue to get more natural and effective with the story each time.

You can practice…

  • In the mirror
  • On phone calls with board members
  • Over lunch with friends
  • During a donor meeting

Remember that your existing staff, board members, and donors need to hear stories too. We all need stories to remind us of why we do what we do!

Finally, ensure your story is always ethical and empowering. Honor those in your story. Be careful as you craft your story to avoid stretching the truth or misrepresenting someone in the story.

A great litmus test is to ask yourself a few questions:

  • “Is this our story to tell”?
  • “Do I have permission to tell this story”?
  • “Are these photos and videos portraying people in an honest and empowering way”?
  • “If this was me, would I want my story told in this way”?

For more on telling stories ethically, check out

Storytelling is essential for demonstrating impact, connecting with your audience, and inviting people to take action. Yet, so many nonprofits struggle to tell stories effectively.

The free Storytelling Guide can help you, your team, and your board quickly take your storytelling to the next level. But, if you really want to master the art and science of storytelling, check out this online course: The Marketing Anatomy of a Growing Nonprofit.

The course offers video lessons dedicated to developing an effective brand and crafting powerful stories. The lesson will also help you build out the full digital ecosystem required to really grow your reach, build awareness, and increase online fundraising results.

Lane offers, “Don’t forget that storytelling is the most influential tool that you have to move people towards action.”

Use stories to share the impact that your organization has on your community. Be sure to tell them everywhere, in your donor communications, on social media, in your nonprofit event marketing, and especially in your events and virtual fundraisers. Whether they occurred a lifetime ago or yesterday, your stories are waiting to be heard. So, don’t wait to tell them.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The End.


Guest Author

Jesse Lane
CEO & Founder
goodmakerU by Branches Mission Lab

Wrapping Up!

For more information on fundraising best practices and essential strategies for successful fundraising campaigns, be sure to check out these additional resources: