Tue, January 20 2015

Next Frontier of Storytelling in the Nonprofit Sector

Liz Ragland's avatar

Marketing Content Associate, Network for Good

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Filed under:   Fundraising essentials • Writing •

Vanessa Chase HeadshotEditor’s note: This post was written by Vanessa Chase, founder of The Storytelling Non-Profit. You can check out more thoughts on storytelling on her blog. Or, if you’re in the mood to watch a webinar on storytelling, you can download the archived version of her Nonprofit911 webinar.

Storytelling is quickly becoming part of the everyday fabric of nonprofit fundraising and communications. While some might suggest that storytelling is simply the latest and greatest trend, much evidence suggests that it’s a fundamental type of human communication working its way into organizational communications. We are entering a new era where organizational communication will no longer be sterile, dry, and boring. Instead, it will sound human. This is the new standard that storytelling and narrative communications are bringing to our sector.

As we hit the ground running in 2015, I anticipate seeing a greater volume of storytelling from nonprofits. This probably comes as no surprise to you. More organizations of varying sizes and causes will hop on the storytelling bus. They will find unique ways to talk about their impact, great staff, and amazing donors. We will hear these stories through the written word, photos, videos, and more. A great many stories will be told online because of the range of formats available to tell them. Many online story platforms are considered to be more interesting and engaging than print.

What else can we expect to see in 2015? Here are two emerging trends that will likely come to the forefront this year.

Storytelling in Stewardship

Donor retention has been a hot topic over the past few years. It is a well-known fact that for many years, organizations were losing more donors than they were retaining. Last year, however, reports showed that the sector retention rates are on the rise. This can largely be attributed to organizations putting a greater emphasis on donor stewardship. Thank you notes, phone calls, and other little touches all add up. What’s more, stories are the perfect type of content to use in stewardship materials. They naturally illustrate impact and outcomes while connecting people through shared emotional experiences.

This year, I think we’ll see more nonprofits overturning conventional approaches to donor stewardship and utilizing stories as a key part of stewardship content. Union Gospel Mission uses stories in its newsletters to show donors how they make the organization’s mission possible. Rather than sharing a ton of dry statistics, the YMCA of Greater Vancouver uses stories in its annual report to talk about impact.

Storytelling in stewardship tip: Take a look at your current thank you letter. Look for the instances where you talk about impact and see if you can find a relevant story to include that will help donors visualize their gift in action.

Community Storytelling

One thing I value most about storytelling is that it communicates emotions and experiences in a way that helps people empathize with each other. This is how connections are made and communities are formed. Nonprofits are uniquely positioned at the center of many constituent groups and have the opportunity to facilitate storytelling between members of their community. Online or offline, donor or nondonor, it doesn’t matter where or who. What matters is that in these various places, we invite people to share their own stories. The benefit of this practice is creating stronger communities to which people truly feel they have a tie.

There are many examples of how organizations crowdsource community stories, which are then shared on websites and social media. The University of Arkansas’ annual giving program has a special landing page where donors can share their stories. The university then uses donor stories on its giving website. Here’s one example:

U of A Stories

Community storytelling tip: Reach out to your active social media followers and ask if they have a story they would like to tell. Encourage them to share a story about their passion for the cause or a personal connection they have to your mission. If you want to get the best stories, a phone conversation or in-person meeting is best.

These are just two storytelling trends we’ll see in 2015. With so many rapid changes in digital media, we’re bound to see even more exciting storytelling techniques emerge.

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Tue, February 04 2014

Is your nonprofit content URGENT?

Caryn Stein's avatar

VP, Communications and Content, Network for Good

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Filed under:   Writing •

If creating compelling content can help you make the case for giving and hold the attention of supporters, exactly how do you come up with the best stuff for your nonprofit? Creating content for content’s sake won’t do much for your cause and may have a negative effect when done poorly. A lot goes into making and effectively distributing quality content, but ideally your nonprofit content should be URGENT:

Useful:  This one should be obvious. As you plan content for your organization, ask, “Will our community find this useful?” Of course, educational content almost always fits the bill, but content can be useful in other ways, too. Information that allows supporters to feel empowered, in the know, or inspired is still incredibly useful.

Relevant:  Publish stuff that means something to the people who you want to read it. Get specific and understand the identities you can tap into to make your content command your readers’ attention. Make it relevant to your cause, your community, and what’s happening right now.

Genuine:  Any piece of content you produce should be uniquely and unequivocally “you”. Whether you create text-based stories or rich visuals, your supporters should be able to immediately recognize your organization’s voice. To ensure your content is genuine, clearly define your nonprofit’s personality by creating a brief brand guide that includes all of your key visual elements, core values, and your writing style.

Edited:  This is an easy way to rise above the messages you’re undoubtedly competing against. Well-edited writing stands out. Make sure every piece of content you produce is edited and reviewed. Yes, check for grammar problems, spelling errors, and typos, but even more importantly, revise your pieces with these key ABCs in mind: authenticity, brevity, and clarity. If you can’t hire a professional editor or proofreader, establish an in-house “buddy system” for reviews. Your colleagues may not be English majors, but a set of fresh eyes will do wonders for your finished product.

Necessary:  Each piece of content you create should tie back to your fundraising and marketing strategy. Ask yourself, “What are we trying to accomplish with this?” Whether you’re creating a thank you video or collecting stories to use in your next fundraising appeal, understand the real role your content is meant to play. Use an editorial calendar to map each piece back to a clearly defined goal.

Tested:  And Tracked. These two Ts go hand in hand. As you send newsletters, social media updates, and share blog posts, continually test and track which types of content work best with your different audience segments. Use Google Analytics or your website platform’s internal reporting to understand which pages are most popular and how readers navigate your content. Keep an eye on your email reports and social media metrics to further inform your content planning.

Does your organization have a plan to improve its content in the coming year? What is working for you? Chime in and let us know in the comments.

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Wed, November 06 2013

What your year-end appeal is missing

Caryn Stein's avatar

VP, Communications and Content, Network for Good

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Filed under:   Fundraising essentials • Writing •

Here at Network for Good, it’s the season for fundraising appeal reviews. As part of our Fundraising Fundamentals premium training, we look at year-end fundraising appeals for hundreds of nonprofits to help them be the best they can be for the busy giving season ahead. All too often, these appeals fall short of packing the emotional punch they need to spur donors to act.

While it’s definitely important to remember the key components of an effective fundraising appeal (a clear call to action, a sense of urgency, statements about what a donation will do), what will make your appeal really stand out is an attention-grabbing, emotionally compelling, authentic story. Your cause’s story is the heart and soul of your fundraising letter. It’s how your appeal will have a personality that allows you to connect with your donors and inspire them to give. Without it, your appeal will read like many other cookie cutter letters your supporters will receive this giving season.

To help you jump start your storytelling efforts, Working Narratives recently released a new guide, Storytelling and Social Change. The guide includes insight from storytelling heavy hitters like Andy Goodman and Marshall Ganz, as well as case studies featuring Ford Foundation and GlobalGiving.

If you feel stuck, the good people at Working Narratives offer some ideas to help you explore a narrative for your stories:

• Jot down a short list of favorite social-change stories you’ve heard, told, or participated in, and notes about what form the stories took and how they affected you.

• Write a story that illustrates how you think change happens and another story that tells of change happening in a very different way. Explore the differences in the characters, settings, conflicts, and endings.

While this resource focuses on the needs of foundations and grantmakers, all organizations can benefit from the tips and examples offered in the guide.  To download your free copy, visit the Working Narratives website.

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Mon, September 09 2013

The rules for phenomenal stories

Caryn Stein's avatar

VP, Communications and Content, Network for Good

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Filed under:   Writing •

When you’re making the case for giving, a powerful story is hard to top. At the same time, putting together a vivid and compelling story is typically more difficult than it sounds. The good news is, the results are well worth the work.

To help you get your storytelling mojo working in time for year-end fundraising season, you can learn from the same storytelling masters that brought you Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up. The talented folks at PBJ Publishing created this wonderful infographic of Pixar’s storytelling rules

These are all great guidelines to keep in mind for any writing or storytelling project, but I think #11 is my favorite: “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.”

What’s your favorite storytelling tip?

Pixar's Storytelling Rules

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Fri, August 23 2013

Keeping it short

Caryn Stein's avatar

VP, Communications and Content, Network for Good

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Filed under:   Writing •

Recently my colleague Steve (who is Network for Good’s CTO) stopped by my desk to share a pearl of wisdom attributed to Mark Twain:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

This is a funny quip, but it’s also very true. It typically takes more effort to pare down your message than it does to unload every thought onto the page.

When communicating your message, do your best to keep it short. It’s worth the effort, you’ll get better results, and your readers will thank you.

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