If you are doing good work in this chaotic, often harsh world, you should shout about it from the rooftops and whisper it into the ears of all who will listen. Tell your story. We need to hear it.
Nonprofits, social enterprises and foundations have become clever storytellers. Innovators like Dear World and the Climate Listening Project are bringing stories of people and issues to us through easily digestible and emotionally provoking media. Through the stories, we learn, we relate, we take up a call to action.
Whether your goal is to attract donors, create partnerships or build a movement, it is no secret that storytelling needs to be one of the key elements of your strategy. As difficult as it may be to scrape together the resources needed to effectively tell your story, you have to do it if you want people to follow you.
I’ve been telling the stories of mission focused organizations for more than 15 years. Through my roles as fundraiser and program director, I’ve learned a lot about how to use stories to connect with donors and partners. I find the following the five most effective angles from which to approach mission focused storytelling.
- Celebrate people: Tell the story of who you impact, in their words if possible. This year for VisionSpring’s annual appeal I created a yearbook of customers. Using interviews of VisionSpring customers from Bangladesh and India, I pulled out unique parts of each person’s story to create “VisionSpring’s Class of 2015”, highlighting customers as “the most improved” (a coffee bean sorter who increased her yield and income after getting glasses) and “the most likely to help others” (a community organizer who, with new glasses, continues to help illiterate people in her community read important documents).
- Help us understand how you work: I’m continuously surprised at how little the general public knows about how mission focused organizations work. Many people still think that nonprofits are run by volunteers and shouldn’t spend money on overhead. Most people have no idea what a social enterprise is. By telling the story of how you work, you educate your audience about what goes into creating your impact. An educated audience is a loyal audience.
- Use understandable metrics: We all know using metrics is key to measuring impact. Metrics are also very useful in telling your story. The general rule to using metrics in storytelling is to keep them simple. Room to Read does this well. Libraries established — check! Schools constructed — check! Children benefited — check! If I only looked at one section of Room to Read’s website, I would have a concrete understanding of how they work and whom they impact.
- Come clean on your challenges: People want to be helpful and they want to feel that their contribution is valued. People also rise to a specific challenge. If you just lost your airline partner that transports your products to your impact site, tell your audience. There will be someone in your network that can help, even if only with a long-shot introduction to someone who might know someone who might know someone. If you paint too rosy a picture, it’s hard for people to feel needed, which makes it hard for them to be motivated to act. On the contrary, you don’t want your audience to feel that the house is burning down so don’t use your storytelling platform to unload all of your problems.
- Make it about your audience: You will have a better chance at motivating people to act if they think your work or cause directly impacts them or someone they care about. This is where a community ambulance corps has it easier than a program helping recent immigrants. If it’s not possible to make the direct personal connection, at least make your audience think about what life would be like if they needed your services. One of the VisionSpring customers I met this year told me that she’s grateful to have new glasses because now she can pick the bugs out of the rice before she cooks it for her family. What if I couldn’t afford reading glasses? The idea of bugs in my food creates a visceral reaction and motivates me to support VisionSpring.
Kirsten Bunch is the Principal of StoriedGlobal, a creative firm that helps mission focused organizations tell the story of how they work and who they impact.