Developing Your Nonprofit Narrative
Going Beyond the One-Story-Fits-All Approach
By Mo Waja
Storytelling to drive “giving” or donations can feel a little repetitive. A common example is the classic profile piece featuring someone whom the nonprofit has impacted. This is the written, video, or audio piece that introduces an individual, describes a barrier, and then states how the organization helped that person to overcome the barrier. It’s straightforward, it’s easy, and it’s a tempting format to gravitate towards. What this generates is a one-story-fits-all approach where the central character may change, but the general storyline remains the same.
The challenge with this approach is twofold. Firstly, on the donor side of the equation, this format speaks only to a specific, results focused donor and often fails to resonate with or impact emotionally focused or outcomes driven donors. Secondly, swapping out the face behind a repetitive storyline fails to embrace what is unique about each story or to illustrate the full breadth of your programs’ impact.
When you’re selling a product, displaying your value proposition by way of a consistent story that showcases the scale of your impact (the number of people that your product helps or has helped) in the most efficient way possible is certainly a strategy that works; however, when it comes to your nonprofit story you’re not simply selling a product. Similar as systems like monthly giving may seem, you’re not even selling a subscription service. What you’re selling is an outcome and the emotion that goes along with it. So, for people to really connect with your organization, empathize with your population, and commit to giving, they need (and want) to understand the full scope of your positive impact – not solely on the direct beneficiaries of your organization’s mission, what we can call your primary population, but on all the people that surround and are connected to them.
So, practically, what does this mean?
It means that as you are building your narrative, take a step back and consider carefully:
- Who do your programs affect beyond your primary population?
- Where do these individuals or groups fit in terms of degrees of separation from your primary population (how are they connected to your primary population)?
- How do they fit into your story (where does your work impact them)?
Think of each person in your primary population as a sun. Around each of them orbits a solar system of different groups of people, stakeholders if you will, in their life. The closer each group is to that person, the more they are affected by changes in that central person’s life. These groups certainly include donors, but they also include children, parents and siblings, extended family, friends, caregivers, and more. The narrative you want to develop is one that is able to, at some point and on some level, speak to and encompass all of these groups, these stakeholders in your population’s lives.
Now, as you’re working through this, think of your full time and volunteer staff as the farthest orbit, with the greatest degree of separation from your primary population. Although these people work directly with your primary population, in terms of impact from the story you’re telling (the story of your population) consider your staff the limit of relevance. What you’ll find is that with your staff as the outermost orbit you’ll touch all the major stakeholders without reaching too far afield.
Taking the time to recognize, list, and intentionally speak to every group affected by changes in your population’s lives means that your story immediately becomes fuller, more complex, rich with detail, and far more engaging to your audience. Now, your story is no longer limited to the nature of your work and its direct impact on your primary population; your story becomes about the positive impact your work has on an entire network of interconnected people.
On a marketing level, extending your narrative to include people with multiple degrees of separation from your primary population opens the door to begin developing new storylines from the wide-ranging impact of your programs. This means that your organization can move on from a one-story-fits-all approach to begin developing narratives designed to connect closely with specific segments of your current audience and, in fact, engage with new audiences.
A bonus; this also means that if you are an organization that, for privacy reasons or otherwise, cannot directly show or name members of the population you serve (for instance, in the case of a nonprofit serving victims of domestic abuse), you can still tell your story through the impact of your programs on all of the people that surround your primary population and are affected, if indirectly, by your work. You can now tell your story through the “negative space” of where your primary population fits into the greater social narrative that you are able to put out into the world.
About the Author
Mo Waja is a professional speaker, marketer, entrepreneur, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive podcast, and works in Digital Marketing at a Toronto nonprofit. Mo has worked with clients in the software, finance, and e-commerce sectors, among others, developing their digital storytelling strategies. Currently, Mo is producing the She Speaks Project, a documentary covering barriers women face in professional communication in the workplace.