How to tell powerful client stories for your nonprofit
Humans are 22 times more likely to remember something if it’s included in a story, rather than offered up on its own.
From late nights weaving myths around ancient fires to modern-day social media, humans have always devoted time to telling stories. In the past decade, marketing experts have proven that stories sell products and raise awareness. But small nonprofits often don’t take advantage of this natural strategy because they lack the time and resources to invest in intentional storytelling practices.
However, spending the time to meet with clients and produce compelling stories is often more effective than building another fundraising email or designing a beautiful infographic.
Below we discuss the science behind storytelling and the basic elements of a good story. We also offer examples of good client stories from nonprofits across the country.
Why Storytelling Works
The cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner said that humans are 22 times more likely to remember something if it’s included in a story, rather than offered up on its own. There is physical evidence to explain this. In a process called mirroring, we experience the same brain activity as the storyteller. When we read, watch, or hear an emotionally-charged story, the brain releases dopamine and oxytocin, which trigger positive emotions and improve memory.
Stories have a unique ability to drive humans to action. They often activate powerful emotions that provoke thought and encourage actions like giving, volunteering or sharing content.
Nonprofits who adopt storytelling strategies have seen impressive results. In a Network for Good survey of 400 nonprofits, 82% said they use stories in fundraising materials and 75% use stories in other donor communications. These nonprofits reported higher social media engagement, an increase in web traffic, an increase in online giving, an influx of new donors, and higher retention rates among current donors.
What Makes a Good Story
Not all stories are created equal – as readers and movie buffs know well. So what makes a story resonate with the audience? For nonprofits, client stories should display these qualities:
- Honesty and authenticity
- Relevance to your organization’s mission
Effective stories also follow the classic narrative structure. (See the illustration below).
- First, introduce the main character (your client) and the setting.
- Next, explain the conflict: What problem is the character facing? What do they want that they don’t have?
- During the rising action, add more details about their situation and their personality. Introduce your organization as a guide and support on their journey.
- For the climax, choose a moment when the client experienced a significant struggle, had a breakthrough or achieved success. The climax should lead to the resolution of the conflict you identified earlier in the story.
- For the falling action, provide details about how the conflict was resolved and what the client’s life is like now.
- Finally, use the resolution to emphasize the story’s theme and allow the client to make a final statement reflecting on their journey.
Forms of Storytelling
A story is anything with a character, a conflict and a resolution. It can be a 1,000-word profile or a single picture. Learn as much as you can about the story before you choose what medium to use. You may also want to tell the same story across different mediums to appeal to a wider range of people.
Here are some story types you can experiment with:
- Traditional profile (500-800 words)
- Long-form feature (1,000-4,000 words)
- Short social media post (40-140 characters)
- 2-3 minute video (production quality)
- 15-30 second social media video
- Brief smartphone video of client speaking
- Podcast or audio story
- Photo and caption
- Photo gallery and captions
- A paragraph in an email
- Multimedia webpage that mixes photos, text, audio, and video
- Recorded presentation/speech by the client (audio or video)
Examples: Effective Nonprofit Stories
To see how other nonprofits are using storytelling to highlight their work, check out the examples below:
- American Red Cross
- Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
- Covenant House California
- Feeding America
- Iowa Donor Network
- Make a Wish
- March of Dimes
- Room to Read
- United Way of Central Iowa
Stories can be powerful tools for nonprofits—raising awareness, promoting advocacy, increasing donations, and engaging current donors. To keep this information handy while working on your content, download a copy of our free Storytelling Strategy Guide for Nonprofits.
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