Peter Barber
Executive VP, Business and Account Development

If Storytelling Is So Great…

...Why Aren’t More Nonprofits Doing It?

In my role at Lipman Hearne I get to attend a lot of marketing conferences. And one of the hottest topics at the conferences I’ve recently attended has been storytelling.

I’ve seen great presentations showcasing how the most successful nonprofit marketers have incorporated storytelling into their organization’s communications efforts. Whether it’s a global organization like Charity Water, a large US one like the Human Rights Campaign, or a small regional nonprofit like the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco, the most successful organizations say they got where they are by first taking the time to identify their core reason for being – their core brand promise – and then sharing that brand promise through consistent, emotional storytelling.

Seems simple enough. But if it’s that simple, why are so many nonprofits not using storytelling effectively?

While there are a lot of successful nonprofits at these marketing conferences, I’ve also run into a lot of organizations that are really miserable storytellers. It’s not that their organizations are bad – they’re not. The majority is working really hard to make their communities better places to live, work, and thrive.

It’s just that they haven’t figured out how to tell a clear and succinct story about why their organization exists, what it hopes to accomplish, and why people should care. Their marketing efforts often convey a lot of facts – about the founder’s motivations, the number of children they’ve impacted, the tons of food they’ve served to the hungry, etc. But they aren’t telling a story. They aren’t making the emotional connection that’s necessary to get their audiences moving from awareness to engagement and involvement.

And if your nonprofit fails to get its audiences emotionally engaged, it’s not likely to have much long-term success. It might get by for a while, but sooner or later some other nonprofit in your space will come around with a real story to tell – a story that’s capable of better attracting volunteers, donors and supporters – and the importance of your organization will be minimized.

As a result of the many conversations I’ve had with nonprofit leaders, and in reviewing some of the work our agency has done, I’ve identified three main reasons why some nonprofits are poor storytellers. The good news: they don’t have to be. Any organization that’s willing to invest internal time and collaborative thinking can improve how it talks about itself, and can start connecting with its key constituencies on a more emotional level through storytelling.

Reason 1. You’re a victim of your past. Some nonprofits have inherited ways of talking about themselves that aren’t really in their best interest. They might spend too much time presenting the vision of their founder, the impeccable backgrounds of their high-profile board members, or the magnitude of their work on a global scale. These might all be important points as part of the organization’s story, but they are not the story itself – and they won’t help you connect emotionally. To really engage with your audiences you should consider telling stories of how your organization is currently helping specific individuals and communities that the audience can recognize and relate to. Using an email to tell one powerful story about a specific, challenged student you’ve helped get thru high school and into college will carry far greater emotional heft than emailing a brag list of the 200+ high schools your organization is working with.

Reason 2: You’re on an island. Of course it’s easier to get people excited internally about storytelling when they have a shared understanding of what you mean by the term. That’s one of the reasons storytelling is such a hot marketing conference topic – marketers get it, love it, and want to do more of it. But most times the marketers at a nonprofit are in the minority, working with colleagues who initially may not see the value of storytelling. “Why should we talk about one family we’ve helped, when we’ve helped literally tens of thousands? We have big numbers to share!” And that approach will most definitely fail to connect emotionally with the people outside of your organization that you’re most interested in connecting with. For storytelling to be effective, you’ll need to invest time in helping your colleagues understand some of the individual, emotional stories that your organization can tell first, and why telling those stories is so important, before you try to tell those stories to the outside world.

Reason 3: You need help. Nonprofit marketers, generally speaking, are over-worked and underpaid. The demands of the job are often broad and unrelenting, so the very idea of stepping back and getting your organization to reconsider how it tells its story may seem like a daunting, unwinnable task. Bringing in a marketing agency to help can be a smart investment. Yes, it will cost money – and convincing your organization’s leadership to hire an outside group to help you improve how you talk about yourselves might initially strike you as a battle you don’t want to have. But time and again, I’ve heard the most successful nonprofit leaders declare that such an investment was one of the smartest things they ever did. An agency with experience in helping organizations improve how they tell their stories can help you address your challenges more quickly and more effectively than trying to do it all on your own. And the investment will provide your organization with greater returns in the future, as you start to use better storytelling methods to raise funds, inspire volunteers, and engage with your community.

I hope these tips can help you get started on a new storytelling path for your nonprofit. You can do it on your own or with the help of a marketing agency like ours – but if you know your organization isn’t telling a great story, please do something. And do it soon.