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Essential Storytelling Tips From Nonprofit Experts


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Daniel Melbye is a digital communications expert who works with nonprofits to deliver change through new media. He shares his experiences and thoughts on his popular non-profit blog. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielMelbye

The best communications are about more than informing and entertaining your supporters. Their objective is to influence how people think, feel and behave and more importantly how they support your organization and the services you provide. Storytelling, particularly for nonprofits, is the ultimate way of doing this.

Author Philip Pullman wrote, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Not only are we hardwired to respond to the elements of great stories, such as conflict, tension, emotion and a happy ending, but telling the story through a real person’s experience provides an honest, trustworthy reflection of your organization and the work that you do within the communities you serve. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to tap into the power of sharing stories. Use these nonprofit storytelling tips to take your marketing to the next level.

Storytelling Tip #1: Let People Tell Their Own Stories

For this first nonprofit storytelling tip, we look to one of the best storytellers of our time. Invisible People, an organization started by Mark Horvath, use film to share the experiences of people who are homeless. His videos have had millions of views on YouTube and managed to raise incredible amounts of money to help homeless people.

He decided to use video to tell their stories because he felt it was the best way to enable their voices to be heard, for people to understand homelessness and to experience what it meant to live on the streets, something he knows all too well as he once lived among them.

“When I started to think about it, I realized that when a person is homeless they feel powerless. For the most part, any real choice has been removed. They don’t have a choice of where to sleep, when to wake up, what to eat, when to shower, what to wear — most every choice is taken away.”

His page is filled with amazing videos about people living in the streets and provides some insights that are surprising to those not familiar with the circumstances of people who are homeless.

I still recall, after many years have passed, watching a video published by Mark Horvath. It depicted a young girl who was living on the streets. The experience of watching her share her story made me understand what it meant to be homeless in a way that no other medium could have.

Watching people share their own stories about living on the streets is so much more powerful than having someone else writing an article or a member of the organization discussing the issues. It allows us to experience how people are affected directly, connecting us with causes in way not possible through traditional mediums.

Storytelling Tip #2: Share Stories That Connect People

This next nonprofit storytelling tip comes from Water Aid. They decided to use pictures to tell stories direct from the field, in order to give people an idea of life without water and sanitation. Through photographs, Water Aid tells the story of a person affected by lack of access to clean water.

Using Instagram the organization was able to give supporters a view into the day-to-day experiences of 17-year-old Howard from the village of Bokola, whose life would be changed by a new well that was eventually built in his village.

Water Aid supporters were able to follow the construction of the well they funded on a live Instagram blog. They were able to see the progress day-by-day throughout the three months of hard work, recording the highs and lows of the organization’s work with the villagers in real time. When the well was completed, the blog also chronicled village life as the residents finally gained access to water.

Supporters were able to see where and how their money was being spent and the impact it had on that one small village – and they could share the experience and reaction of the people that they helped. How much more likely are they to give again in the future?

Storytelling Tip #3: Create Stories to Inspire

The Charity:Water team are masters at storytelling. They do it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as on their blog, their website and in their e-mail marketing campaigns.

Charity:Water even has an entire section of their site dedicated to stories from the field, where people who work for or collaborate with the nonprofit tell stories about the experiences they’ve had bringing clean water to people in Rwanda, Uganda, Bangladesh and more.

What makes Charity:Water’s stories so powerful is the use of impactful images and stunning video, combined with very personal stories.

Paul Young, the Director of Digital at Charity:Water, believes that supporters are at the centre of their marketing strategy. “At our core we are an amazing content marketing shop. We don’t buy advertising. We 100% focus on word-of-mouth marketing. We create amazing content that we then distribute through the web – through social media – and then we give that to people we hope are passionate advocates who will take the content and share it with their friends.”

To achieve this type of word of mouth marketing it is important to understand what inspires your donors, and then create a content marketing strategy around that. Make inspiration a core element of your content strategy. As Young says, “Inspired people with the mouthpiece of social media can do amazing things.”

Storytelling Tip #4: Compel people to act

Invisible Children is another nonprofit organization that understands the power of storytelling. They experienced firsthand how stories can be used to carry messages. KONY 2012, the documentary that launched Invisible Children, was the fastest growing viral video of all time. The documentary was a personal story: a 30-minute film that explained why the world needed to catch and bring to justice Joseph Kony, a central African warlord, who, over the previous 26 years, had abducted 30,000 children and turned them into soldiers and sex slaves.

This particular video does a wonderful job of showing potential supporters why they should get involved as fundraisers. It doesn’t just articulate a theory of change, it shows how that change is happening. Then, the video explains exactly how each fundraiser fits into the broader solution, giving the supporter their own individual part to play in the larger movement. After watching the video, 3.7 million people pledged their support for efforts to find and arrest Joseph Kony.


Nonprofits can benefit from using digital communications to find new storytelling approaches that can bring supporters closer to the work their donations are helping make happen. For organizations willing to be creative, the emergence of digital media has brought with it massive opportunities for organizations working across all a wide variety of causes.

How is your organization using digital media to raise money and what opportunities have this created for you?

Image Credit: Chris – ShutterHacks (modified)

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