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What's Your Story?

Storytelling isn’t just a trending topic in cause marketing—it’s fundamental to leadership, and every call to action you make. Get some fresh perspective on the ancient art of tale-spinning in this tip-filled guide to finding, developing, and sharing your stories.

Just last month, in an interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose, the President of the United States identified the biggest mistake of his first term: his failure to “tell a story.” What the President had learned, over three years of legislative loggerheads and a waning hold on the public imagination, was that the carefully-constructed “Yes We Can” narrative of his presidential campaign wasn’t incidental to his victory: it was instrumental.

Giving people a story to believe in isn’t an optional part of leadership. A good story, in fact, is the only thing people ever have believed in—despite evidence to the contrary, despite the failure of individual leaders, despite threats to well-being, people will hold fast, and even rededicate themselves, to the stories that resonate with them.

As a nonprofit, you’ve got plenty of stories to tell—there’s the story of the work you do, the story of the commu­nity you serve, and the story of the people you involve at all levels. You’ve also got plenty of places to tell it—in fact, you’re telling your story in every communication you make. But how do you nail down the story you want to tell? And how do you serve it up in its most effective form every time, across all the channels now available?

With the help of some experts, and the lessons of one nonprofit’s hugely successful viral video, we’ll break down the elements of effective storytelling, uncover a simple ap­proach to consistent communications, and look at some of the new ways we’re telling our stories online.


“Our brain is hardwired to respond to story,” explains author Lisa Cron in her new book Wired for Story.

“The pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.” When they first appeared, tens of thousands of years ago, stories were about one and only one thing: “improv[ing] our chances of making it through the night.” And so, because it was essential to our survival, we learned to crave story—just like we crave food and water. And today, our hunger for good stories is just as urgent as ever.

The goal of all your nonprofit’s com​munications, ultimately, is moving your audience to action—be it sharing, donating, volunteering or attending.

But in a world of information over­load, audiences aren’t going to snap to attention for just any story. To engage the human brain, our story has to fit the formula that it’s learned to seek out. “Story is the language of experience,” writes Cron. That is, the stories we gravitate toward are personal—they center on an individu­al, with her own goals, obstacles, perspectives, and feelings—and practical—they provide an explana­tion for how the world works.

In his own new book, Winning the Story Wars, nonprofit communica­tions consultant Jonah Sachs calls this primal kind of story a “myth.” By telling the story of someone engaging with the real world, a myth provides meaning—a moral of the story—and prescribes a course of action—a ritual—through which the audience can live out and more deeply connect to the values embed­ded in that meaning.

Since the dawn of the broadcast era, Sachs notes, marketers have become brutally efficient myth-making machines—establishing enduring, iconic, highly popular stories to sell people everything from shoes to personal computers. But in the current media landscape, mass marketing has been blindsided by the networked social media model. Suddenly, thanks to the Facebooks, Twitters, Tumblrs and Yelps of the world, consumers have a voice, and they’re using it to share the things they love, publicly abrade the things they find objectionable, and—in the process—to curate their own stories.

3 Tips for Socializing Your Stories

1. State you conclusion.
2. Write for your Readers.
3. Use images on Facebook & hashtags on Twitter. 
Read Jenna Silverman's full article.

The challenge is to find a way to make your story a part of theirs. For nonprofits, this should come as welcome news. We have the raw materials, in abundance, for engaging people at their emotional core: values. The first step is knowing your audience.


In March, a 30-minute documentary about a Ugandan warlord almost no one had heard of became the fastest-growing viral video ever. Produced by Invisible Children, KONY 2012 reached 100 million views in just 6 days. Now, you probably can’t make another KONY—it’s doubtful anyone will—but you can definitely learn a few things from it. So how did they pull it off? First, by getting together with their audience.

“Invisible Children got their results by understanding where their audience was,” says Sachs. “By doing a lot of background research and by being very respectful.” For years, Invisible Children has been holding conversa­tions with their supporters, online and in-person, to learn what’s important to them. It found them starting new families and learning the ropes online alongside their friends, in Facebook comment threads and through YouTube-hosted home movies (both of which feature prominently in the resulting KONY video). Invisible Children then created a narrative in which those supporters—young, plugged-in Americans figuring out how to raise a family in a world of increasing connection and chaos— became the heroes.

“A lot of nonprofits say they want to speak to a broader audience,” says Sachs. They’re afraid that “preaching to the choir” will limit the reach of their message—but that’s not the way things work in our new sharing culture. “What you really want to do is arm the choir—this passionate tribe of people who want to support you, but who don’t necessarily have the tools to do it.”

Play up the values in your story, rather than pushing the “urgency” button or relying on grim statistics, and your audience won’t just pay attention, they’ll pass on your message to their friends.

That’s where your stories come in: online, people want to project their best selves by sharing messages that align with and amplify their highest values. (In the case of Invisible Children’s audience, those values might be “family” and “jus­tice.”) Consumer brands struggle in the sharing culture because they have to manufacture ties to higher values that often aren’t there—think a soda-maker playing up the “natural” aspects of its neon-green sugar-water. The products pushed by nonprofits— cleaner air, smarter kids, help for the needy, healthy communities— have obvious appeal to higher values like stewardship, compassion, and belonging. Play up those values in your story, rather than pushing the “urgency” button or relying on grim statistics, and your audience won’t just pay attention, they’ll pass on your message to their friends.

This is especially critical in a low-trust environment like the internet: “People online are certainly paying the most attention to recommendations from friends on their social networks,” says Sachs. “People only want to open their inboxes and news feeds to those they trust.” By “getting involved in the conversations they’re already having,” online and offline, “rather than standing on your soapbox proclaim­ing,” you not only learn about your audience but you build relationships with them. That way, when you present your story (with attached call-to-action), they already know you, trust you, and will be excited to share your message with the people who trust them—and that group, in turn, will share it with those who already trust them, and so on.

That’s the way Sachs and company grew the audience for The Story of Stuff, a video produced by his Free Range Studios and activist Anne Leonard: “We were very careful about the 10,000 people we targeted, and that 10,000 became 20 million— because those people became passionate evangelists for it.”


You’ve identified an audience who cares about what you do. Now, what do you want to tell them? How do you move them to listen, to share, to act?

It starts by nailing down your posi­tioning and your personality, says Sarah Durham, founder and principal of communications firm Big Duck, who has been developing communi­cations strategies for nonprofits for almost two decades. Her process, which she calls “Brandraising,” starts with a term borrowed from the for-profit world: positioning. “What’s the biggest, simplest idea that we want to be sure our donors, clients, and others associate with us?” she explains. Essentially, it’s the question at the center of your mission—What do you do?—and it should be an­swered in every story you tell.

Story Gathering in
5 Easy Steps
Step 1: Identify
Step 2:
Step 3:
Step 4:
Step 5:
Read Wilton Blake's full article.

“The Red Cross is a good example,” says Durham. “If you said to some­one, ‘What does the Red Cross do?’ most people would say ‘Disaster relief.’ They have done a great job of pounding home the idea that ‘We are America’s disaster relief organization.’” It may be helpful to think of your positioning as your “Big Story,” the term used by nonprofit storytelling consultant Wilton Blake: “Your Big Story is how your nonprofit changes the world. All the small stories you collect should be used to tell your Big Story.”

Once you have your positioning pinned down, you can check every communication and action you take to see if they truly reflect your “Big Story.”

The second step in Durham’s Brandraising process is personality, the tone and style with which you communicate: “Is it a serious, library-like academic personality? Or more warm and friendly?” To help find your voice, Sachs recommends asking, “If your organization was a person, who would that person be?” You should also think about the most exuberant people in your organization—not necessarily the most knowledgeable, but the most enthusiastic and infec­tious communicators. The point is to avoid the authoritarian style so common in broadcast ads in favor of an authentic, conversational tenor that you can bring to all your commu­nications—a voice that people can identify with and respond to.


The goal of all your nonprofit’s communications, ultimately, is moving your audience to action—be it sharing, donating, volunteering or attending. But no one takes action without a compelling reason—and more often than not, that reason is a feeling. “Emotions are the precursors to actions. If you don’t feel anything, you’re not going to do anything,” says Andy Goodman, nonprofit consultant and author of Storytelling as Best Practice. A story can inspire those feelings, but only if you can keep the interest of your audi­ence. That means not just giving them someone they can identify with, but someone with a problem they can relate to, and a journey worth taking. In other words, you need a great plot.

“One common way nonprofits tell their story goes like this: people were in pain, so we launched this program to help them, and they’re better now, so you should give us money,” says Goodman. “Even if that’s essentially what happened, it’s missing the key that makes it interesting: a problem. The minute I run into something that keeps me from my goal, that’s the point when people lean forward and say those magic words: Then what happened?

To get an easy handle on plot, Sachs recommends looking to the Hero’s Journey, a classic story formula common to all eras and cultures, found in everything from The Odyssey to Twilight. It’s the story we’ve been telling each other since ancient times: a reluctant or unlikely Hero sets out into the world with a goal in mind, and encounters an obstacle to achieving that goal. In comes a Mentor, often mysterious, who gives our hero a Gift—some kind of wisdom or power—that allows the Hero to overcome the obstacle, achieve his goal, and in the process attain a new understanding of the world and a way to better live out his values.

Your nonprofit is the Mentor and the work you do is your Gift—like Obi-Wan Kenobi, you show up to teach young Luke Sywalker about the ways of the force, then stand aside while he uses it to defeat the Empire.

The most important thing to remem­ber, Sachs and Goodman agree, is that your nonprofit is not the hero of your story. “People identify with people,” says Goodman. “Your hero can’t be an organization, or an initiative.” Rather, your nonprofit is the Mentor and the work you do is your Gift—like Obi-Wan Kenobi, you show up to teach young Luke Skywalker about the ways of the Force, then stand aside while he uses it to defeat the Empire. Your role is to empower the real heroes of your story—your audience—and take them on a Hero’s Journey. And while you don’t literally have to make your audience the hero of every story you tell, you need someone they can feel for. (And it should be a someone, not a group—studies show that audiences respond best to single-person stories, so you’ll want to find one volunteer, beneficiary, staffer or other individual to center on.)

That’s exactly how KONY 2012 drew in its audience: with a resonant hero—a regular American dad,

Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell—and a clear, compelling problem that speaks directly to its audience: how do we teach our kids about a world of overwhelming injustice? The plot set, Invisible Children goes on to detail the prob­lem (featuring a clear villain to root against in Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony), and the work our regular American dad and his organization have done to bring attention and intervention to it. That’s when Invisible Children, in its role as Mentor, reveals the Gift in the form of an empowering message: that at this moment, a generation connected like none other before it has the unique power to shine a light on and stop injustice. And the story ends with that ritual, a specific call to action that shows us how to take advantage of the Gift: share our video on your Facebook page, target celebrity trendsetters and policy makers with your Twitter account, and, of course, donate to Invisible Children. (Still don’t believe the power of a good story? The Guardian reported that Invisible Children raked in $5 million within 48 hours of publishing KONY 2012 online.)

The good news is that stories are literally everywhere, and can be captured any number of ways—even with the phone in your pocket. It’s also important to realize that everyone in your organization is a storyteller and a story gatherer. Every interaction they have with donors, constituents, volunteers and others presents an opportunity. You want to make sure, then, that your people are all focused on the same fundamentals—that identity, voice, and audience you defined earlier—and that they have a few questions in mind for the next time they run into someone with a story to tell. (See sidebar for more on gathering your stories.)


Now that you have your audience in mind, your identity and voice nailed down, and a handle on the basics of plot-crafting, you have a solid founda­tion for every communication you make—that is, every story you tell. So how do you get them out there?

It’s not easy to navigate a communi­cations landscape overflowing with opportunities, from 140-character status updates to blog posts to still photos to video clips to infographics. Online channels like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest all have particular strengths that you want to play to, but they also have drawbacks to keep in mind (see sidebar). “140 characters is not enough space to tell a really good story,” says Goodman. “Twitter can be used to point people to good stories, but you still need a few hundred words, a minute or two minimum.”

Engaging the Media1. Get to know reporters on your beat.
2. Ask for a meeting.
3. Make your story stand out.
4. Personalize your mission.
Read Misty Skedgell's full article.

Goodman sees the explosion of video as the most significant advance in storytelling technology. Not only is video capture quickly become standard equipment on phones, but a pocket-sized high-def video camera that can film underwater—and even take the occasional tumble—runs less than $150. There are also professional video production companies that work regularly with nonprofits. Producer Burt Holland, of Atlanta’s own Encyclomedia, warns that video is trickier than it may seem. He encourages his nonprofit clients to keep video short (under five minutes) and to the point: “In a video, you’re trying to convey emotion. It’s not a PowerPoint where you’re trying to give all the facts.” He also urges nonprofits to think of different ways to present your story. Happily, inspiration abounds: check out the YouTube “nonprofit” channel, the “Activism & Non-profits” page on Vimeo, the Daily Do-Gooder, and Blackbaud.tv for examples. Once you have a video of your own, be sure to post it on YouTube and Vimeo, then submit it to the sector blogs and issues sites you turn to regularly. (For more on the possibilities, see our sidebar.)

A still image can also make a big impact. Be sure to take plenty of photos when you’re out in the field, even if only with your phone: image quality may be limited, but it’s more than adequate for posting to Facebook or Twitter, where a single, compelling photo and a brief caption is more than enough to elicit a click or a share. A photo conveys the reality of a situation faster and more directly than a written description can, and it’s far more likely to elicit a share than a headline by itself—for evidence, just look at the runaway success of image-based social networks like Instagram and Pinterest (which have themselves inspired Facebook to put more emphasis on images).

A hot image-based storytelling trend is the infographic, an eye-catching and easy-to-digest way to tell your story through data. Over the past couple years, they’ve become a cottage industry for forward-thinking news sources like GOOD magazine, but even government orgs are producing their own—as part of their outreach efforts, the U.S. Census Bureau released an infographic in August taking readers “Inside America’s Economic Machine.” The popularity of the form has caused infographic design outfits like Lemon.ly (see sidebar) to sprout like mush­rooms, and increasingly sophisticated online tools for design­ing your own infographics are rolling out all the time.

Don’t forget, however, that those images and infographics can also tell your story in real life: on flyers, in mailers, in your annual report—even on your business cards. At Conservation International, they selected 33 images from their archive and put them on employee business cards, which act as effective stories in miniature.

Last but not least, tell your stories to the press. Beyond the traditional press release, there are plenty of avenues for engaging media outlets new and old. Bloggers are especially hungry for stories that resonate with their readers, and resource-strapped newsrooms are more receptive to pitches than ever before—especially a ready-made, well-thought-out story that makes an easy “get” for over­taxed multimedia reporters. (See sidebar with expert advice from Turner Broadcasting VP Misty Skedgell, and our interview with 11Alive’s John Deushane later in this issue.)

Your story is your most powerful method for demonstrating the work and worth of your nonprofit while moving an audience to action.

For prime examples of online story­telling, Sachs recommends checking out Charity: Water’s site and Facebook page: “They’re really helping people understand the kind of connection that they’re making, and showing that heroic potential on both sides of the transaction—donors and beneficia­ries.” Goodman points to the Nurse Family Partnership, which features stories prominently on their homep­age, and also to Families USA, whose “story bank” currently holds more than 800 tales from people living without health insurance. “If you were to call them and say, ‘I’m a reporter and I need a story about people without health insurance in the Atlanta area,’ they can give you three people to call today,” says Goodman. And for visual storytelling, Heather Mansfield recently posted on her blog Nonprofit Tech 2.0 a list of 11 must-follow nonprofits on Instagram, including Heal the Bay, Keep a Breast Foundation, the NAACP, the Nashville Symphony, and Water.org.

There are also a number of new web sites rallying around storytelling, from fundraising-for-causes sites like HopeMob and Razoo to story-for­-story’s-sake collective Cowbird.com, a social network built around story­telling the way Pinterest is built around images. And in addition to the excellent new books from Lisa Cron and Jonah Sachs, storytelling resources specifically for nonprofits abound online, including Andy Goodman’s Free Range Thinking newsletter, Wilton Blake’s Storytelling For Nonprofits, Kivi Leroux Miller’s Communications Blog, and Beth Kanter’s monthly collection of story prompts.


It’s your most powerful method for demonstrating the work and worth of your nonprofit while moving an audience to action. And that audience is out there, eager to go with you on a journey of discovery, and show off what they’ve learned from it. All you’ve got to do is find them, get to know them, and invite them to make your story a part of theirs.

Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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