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How to Tell Ethical and Impactful Stories for Your Nonprofit

By Ryan Felix posted 01-09-2024 09:00


Most of us enjoy a good story. Whether we’re watching the latest hit movie, reading a favorite novel, or listening to a friend talk about their recent vacation, stories hold our attention and engage our emotions.

Besides its usefulness for entertainment and personal connection, storytelling can also make your fundraising appeals more inspirational. However, it’s easy to get caught up in showing how your nonprofit made a difference in your community and forget to consider the ethical implications that come with telling stories about real people.

Because effective nonprofit storytelling involves balancing ethics with impact, this guide will outline three tips each for both ethical and impactful storytelling. Let’s get started!

Tips for Ethical Nonprofit Storytelling

1. Prioritize Authenticity

Although emotional appeal is a major purpose of nonprofit storytelling, it’s still important to be honest and authentic in the way you tell your stories. This means:

  • Doing your research. Confirm that all of the information you plan to include in your story is true, and incorporate firsthand perspectives whenever possible.

  • Not exaggerating details. While it’s tempting to paint your organization in the best possible light, make sure to tell stories as they happened.

  • Branding your storytelling communications. When supporters see your logo, colour palette, and other elements of your nonprofit’s brand alongside your stories, they’ll be more confident that those stories are true to your organization.

Your stories should show how your nonprofit has succeeded in working toward its mission in the past. That way, you can not only inspire supporters but also instill confidence that their contributions will help you accomplish even more in the near future.

2. Back Up Stories With Data

Another way to instill confidence in your audience when telling stories is by supporting them with relevant data points. While it's true that storytelling is more engaging than sharing simple facts, data grounds your stories in reality. Like with the stories themselves, make sure to maintain transparency and truthfulness by not manipulating or exaggerating the accompanying data.

To look at an example, let’s say the fundraising team at an animal shelter is planning their year-end appeal.

They might choose to tell the story of a rescue cat they cared for before it found its forever home to help their audience connect emotionally with their work.

Mentioning the fact that this cat was one of 175 pets adopted from their shelter over the past year makes the story more believable and compelling (as long as the number is accurate, of course).

3. Ask Subjects for Consent

With the exception of animal shelters and wildlife preservation organizations, most of your nonprofit’s stories will center around human subjects. It’s important to treat these individuals with respect, especially when it comes to sharing their personal information.

Before including your subjects’ real names, photos, or any other potentially identifying details in your fundraising materials, get their written consent to do so.

Honor their wishes if they prefer that you not show their face, refer to them using a pseudonym, or refrain from using their stories at all.

Tips for Impactful Nonprofit Storytelling

1. Choose a Compelling Main Character

While you should show respect to anyone you feature in your nonprofit’s storytelling, it’s also important to be strategic about who you feature. You have a few options for “main characters” to tell stories about, including:

  • Staff members, who can provide an inside perspective on your organization’s work.

  • Loyal supporters, who are the most relatable subjects for your audience.

  • Individuals your nonprofit serves, whose stories tend to create the most emotional impact.

Consider your audience and communication channel to choose the most compelling main character to feature.

2. Showcase Your Nonprofit’s Work

In addition to a main character, every good story includes a conflict and resolution. For nonprofit storytelling, the conflict should be a real problem that relates to your mission, and your organization should have played a key role in bringing about the resolution.

Returning to the earlier animal shelter example, the conflict the rescue cat faced may have been that their previous owner could no longer care for them. To lead up to the resolution of the cat finding a new home, share the details of how your nonprofit took the cat in, provided medical and social care, and coordinated its adoption—all of which was made possible by your generous supporters!

3. Leverage Multiple Storytelling Channels

Nearly any channel that you use to promote your organization’s fundraising efforts can include storytelling. Consider telling stories on the following channels:

  • Any section of your nonprofit’s website, from the About page to the blog
  • Email blasts and newsletters
  • Direct mail solicitations
  • Text-based, image-based, and video posts on social media.

The more channels you use to tell your nonprofit’s story, the more touchpoints you’ll create for supporters to get involved.

When you take care to focus on both ethics and impact, storytelling can take your fundraising appeals to the next level. Use the tips above to get started and look to other organizations for inspiration as you consider how best to tell your nonprofit’s story.