Good storytelling is the lifeblood of strong marketing. But, in the nonprofit space, the imperative to tell good stories comes with two challenges. The first, of course, is finding the right stories to tell. The second is determining the right voice through which to tell those stories. To answer these questions, we must start by recognizing that ‘storytelling’ in the context of the nonprofit means expanding our definition of the organizational story beyond the population we serve to encompass all stakeholders connected to the organization and affected by the good work that the organization does. Then, we must understand that the voice that drives those stories is what we can consider the voice of ownership.
When it comes to storytelling, one of the stumbling blocks that nonprofit storytellers (we’ll step away from formalized ‘marketers’, here) run into is that the definition of the story of an organization is often limited to the population the organization serves. However, while that population’s story may be the core need that gives purpose to a nonprofit organization, that story does not exist in isolation. The moment the organization begins to interact with their population, the story of the population changes — and, hopefully, for the better. New characters begin to interact with your population in the form of staff, volunteers, caretakers, and donors, amongst others. All of these people have stories, whether those stories existed as a driver for them to contribute to your nonprofit and become part of your community of supporters or whether their story arose from the work that they do and have done with your nonprofit, and those stories are integral threads in the fabric of your organization’s story. These stories add greater depth to the work your nonprofit organization does, showcasing the full scope of the impact of the challenge your nonprofit seeks to address. The first step to finding your marketing voice is recognizing that the story of your nonprofit is multifaceted, with each face representing a different stakeholder impacted by changes in the lives of your population. Each of those stakeholder stories deserves to be given voice, at the right time. Significant in this is the value of the stories of donors; donors whose stories, as noted by Emma Lewzey, Principal at Blue Sky Philanthropy, in her interview on The Let’s Talk Show podcast, are often overlooked by nonprofit organizations seeking compelling stories.
Often these stories are overlooked because we believe that the story that will have the greatest appeal and inspire the strongest giving behaviour is one that illustrates the plight of the population we serve. However, we must recognize that as the stakeholders in our organization are many and varied — so too are the prospects with whom we seek to connect. An individual who may not have a lived experience that allows them to affect completely with the plight of your population may be inspired by the good work done by a volunteer or donor, and so be drawn to give based on a desire to do similar good work and experience the satisfaction, hope, gratitude, or even prestige that comes with it. Just as the story of your nonprofit is multifaceted, so too are the motivations of the people we seek to appeal to.
Once we’ve found the right stories to tell, the second challenge is finding the right voice to tell those stories. When it comes to the stories of our population, we see this struggle in both written and spoken storytelling, especially where an organization has one or two flagship stories that are told by many people, most of whom are neither subject of or witness to the story. While sometimes these “Meet Jane…” stories are unavoidable, they are also often less impactful than a story told with the voice of ownership; that is, a voice that experienced or witnessed the story firsthand. The voice of witness is particularly valuable when, for reasons of safety, privacy, or otherwise, you cannot show the population you serve directly. Here, you need to find a way to tell the story of your population while anonymizing individual members of the population. The voice of the witness allows for a generalization of the story that removes identifiers while still carrying much of the weight and emotional impact of the subject of the story. That said, wherever you can show the population you serve, the use of their voice in the telling of their story will always create the most powerful version of that story.
The most direct way to collect stories with the voice of ownership is by investing in dynamic content. That is, short video or audio interviews that can be captured easily using a smartphone and produced quickly on your basic production app like Windows Movie Maker or Garage Band. For written content, stories can be transcribed through direct interview or from captured dynamic content and massaged (very slightly) to include the desired appeal or call to action as needed. One important note here is that in collecting our stories we must be wary of inadvertently excluding our population from their own narrative. This happens most often when, intentionally or unintentionally, massaging a story crosses the line to become sensationalism, or when organizations cherry-pick pieces of a story in order to create a desired emotional outcome from prospects or donors. The worst-case scenario is when sensationalism of a story moves even further to become the fictionalization of the story, where the characters are real but the story told is more along the lines of “the following was inspired by true events”. Although as nonprofit storytellers we are privileged to become the curators and caretakers of the stories of the population we serve, people and other living beings who often times do not have the resources to tell their own story to the world, ownership of that story (especially where the population we serve are people) remains in the hands of our population as their lived experience. So, wherever possible, our population should have a direct hand in how their story is told. In fact, particularly when it comes to the written, one strategy is to actually involve individual members of your population in the drafting of their story, as described by Judy Noordermeer, Associate Director Marketing and Communications at Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto, in our talk Marketing vs. Mission at AFP Congress 2018. Allow them the opportunity to write the story in their own voice before running it through any necessary edit and proof to ready it for market.
At the end of the day, committing to this (certainly more time intensive) method of organizational storytelling is all about authenticity. The community you seek to engage and appeal to are so inundated with ‘marketing messaging’ that connecting with them to inspire giving behaviour can be a very high threshold demand. Expanding your definition of your organizational story to include most, if not all, of the stakeholders affected by the lives of your population and then telling those stories in the voice of ownership means that you have an opportunity to appeal to the complex motivations of, and engage your community through, truly authentic storytelling.