Cover Your Nonprofit Like a Journalist

What’s the difference between a nonprofit and a newsroom? Heading into 2016, these lines aren’t so clearly drawn.

In my career I’ve led communications for an education nonprofit and also covered education issues as a journalist. Surprisingly, I had better access to compelling stories at the nonprofit than I did as a reporter.

Cause-based organizations are now leading publishers, podcasters, documentarians, and, above all, storytellers. In “Stories Worth Telling,” a recent study by the Meyer Foundation and Georgetown University, 96 percent of nonprofits emphasized the importance of telling their own story.

In many ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Nonprofit organizations can build their own audiences. Many cause-based groups can earn a trust with people on the front lines of key issues — teachers, aid workers, environmentalists, etc. — that is often challenging for time- and resource-strapped journalists.

An organization like charity: water can show its audience the actual villages and residents in northern Africa that their donations can help support.

As the viewer experiences these personal stories, the chance to make a contribution is one click away.

Or an organization like The Century Foundation can tell the personal stories of those participating in programs such as Baltimore’s Housing Mobility Program.

These vignettes and recollections from residents bring the audience directly into the affected communities in a way that an academic study or white paper cannot.

It’s not hard to see the benefits of this kind of storytelling, so why aren’t more nonprofits doing it?

Remember when I mentioned 96 percent of nonprofits believe it’s important to tell stories? Well, the same study showed that 78 percent have specific goals for storytelling. And 64 percent say they meet those goals. And just 39 percent are satisfied with the quality of their stories.

“Most organizations have a treasure trove of stories waiting to be uncovered,” says John Trybus, deputy director of the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) at Georgetown University, a co-author of “Stories Worth Telling.” “But a lot of them don’t see it or understand it unless they have someone pointing it out.”

Trybus credits this discrepancy in intent and execution to a few factors common among nonprofits. For starters, they don’t have a clear definition of what a story is. The “Stories Worth Telling” report analyzed 355 pieces of content that nonprofits identified as a “story.” Just over half of the content even met Georgetown’s criteria.

A lack of strategy and the absence of internal buy-in are other challenges nonprofits face in realizing their storytelling ambitions. Sixty-eight percent of nonprofits surveyed reported fewer than three full-time staff who are responsible for storytelling.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nonprofits are often short on resources and have important goals beyond telling their story. But there are some practical methods nonprofits can use to take full advantage of their storytelling opportunities.

Above all, Act like a journalist

Just as nonprofits can occupy some of the same storytelling space as news organizations, they can adopt similar practices and mindsets as well.


1) Develop your sources

By the very nature of their work, membership organizations, foundations, and advocacy groups regularly interact with people who have stories to tell. So, who are your stories about?

Identify these people and rely on them, just like a journalist does her trusted sources. Create a source list of every subject matter expert, practitioner, or generally inspiring person you come across in your work. Share it with colleagues.

This list is valuable in a number of ways. First, it provides a starting point for your nonprofit’s storytelling efforts. Second, if your organization doesn’t have the capacity to regularly capture and tell stories on your own, your source list is still extremely valuable, especially to journalists, policymakers, and other organizations looking to highlight stories in your field.


2) Ask questions like a reporter

How do you find your stories and sources? Any time you are at an event, conducting field work, or on a phone call with your organization’s stakeholders, dedicate at least a few minutes to asking questions that uncover stories.

“What are you most excited about?”

“What have you been telling your friends and family about your work lately?”

“What is the biggest challenge you face right now?”

These conversation starters can lead to valuable stories and insights.

When I worked at an education nonprofit, I asked a school superintendent what she was most excited about after a conversation about a fairly dry subject. She told me about a high school student who started a coding club for girls, to promote gender equality in computer science. We agreed it was a story that deserved a wider audience and we helped the student write a first-person essay about her experience that was widely read on Medium.


3) Listen. Aggressively.

For great journalists, many of their best stories come to them, because their audience trusts that they will listen. In addition to going out and finding stories, nonprofits should give their audience clear and easy ways to share their story with them.

Add a “Share Your Story” button on your organization’s website. Ask for stories in your email signature. (Try this: “Got a great story to tell? I’m listening!” You can add “aggressively” if you’d like.) When you publish a story, send it to the five people you think would be most interested and ask them if it conjures up any stories of their own.

All of these tactics are what Trybus, from Georgetown, calls “creating a culture of storytelling,” where everyone in an organization contributes to this effort. If you’re a communicator, hold a workshop or two with your colleagues and teach them these skills. Create shared documents where your colleagues can contribute their own stories. Start your meetings or conference calls with a different person telling a short story.

Above all else, know that you have a story to tell, and that there is an audience waiting to listen.


Effective storytelling is one of the many things we think about for clients at Atlantic Media Strategies every day. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Digital Trends Index, and get in touch on Twitter.