Your ultimate nonprofit storytelling guide: Connecting donors and driving impact

Carmen Amell March 16, 2021

In this post:

Why are stories important Structure and elements of a story Character Conflict Solution A few things to keep in mind when building your story:

Why are stories important

A successful fundraising strategy starts with a compelling story. 

Whether you are looking to raise funds from new or existing donors or acquiring new volunteers, a good story sets you up for great success. Stories connect your donors with your cause and your beneficiaries. They evoke emotions and actions. 

A good story creates empathy and helps us relate and understand the conditions in which you run your programs. Stories are powerful tools to help you not only to raise funds but to raise awareness, maintain your donors and mobilize volunteers, among other benefits. 

Can you think of a story that has made you deeply connect with the character? That has transported you right there with the character and created an urge to act? 

Your donors might not know what it feels like to be a refugee or suffering from a terminal disease or food insecurity. A story that can help them feel and empathize can inspire them to give.

When a story effectively transports us into the world of its characters, it can actually change our beliefs and willingness to act.

Samantha Wright & Annie Neimand, authors of The secret to better storytelling for social change.

To be able to create emotions and draft stories that would resonate with your donors. You need to understand, as much as possible, who your audience is. A donor profile is a great way to start.

  • Who are they?
  • Where do they live?
  • Are they working?
  • Do they have children?
  • What is their education or experience?
  • What are their motivations?
  • Why do they want to give to your organisation?
  • What causes are important for them?
  • What do they do in their free time?

You can make one persona profile for each type of donor and program you have. Monthly, one-time donors, corporate sponsors, volunteers, etc. For example:

  • Raquel – Corporate Partnerships Director
  • Female, 42 years old, New York
  • Has 3 children
  • Husband works in the finance sector
  • Her hobbies are running and reading
  • Works in consumer goods sector, well-educated, Master degree in Business Administration
  • Attributes: Upper middle class, hard-working, constantly in meetings. Active on Facebook on the weekends. Values gender equality, education, giving back to the community.

Now that we know why stories are important and who will read them, let’s look at the structure and the elements of your story.

Structure and elements of a story

All stories have 3 parts:

  1. A beginning. The introduction to the main character and the setting.
  2. A middle. Describe the situation. Introduction of a problem or a crisis.
  3. An ending. Here you present the turning point or resolution.

Character

Every story needs a character. They are the people that benefit from your organization. The protagonist is placed in certain circumstances. They are the human element that your audience will connect with.

When writing your story, focus on an individual rather than a group. Research shows that people connect better with a single person than with a group of people. By focusing on one person, you can share personal details that would help build an emotional connection with the reader. This is also known as the ‘identifable victim’.

By reading the personal attributes of that individual, they can picture them in their head and connect with them on a personal level.

They have a goal, a dream, a problem. For example:

Laura is 7 years old and is the eldest of 3 sisters. She lives in Zacapa, Guatemala. Her favorite subject at school is Math. When she grows up, Laura wants to be a Doctor. When she is not at school, Laura likes to play hopscotch with her friends. Laura’s parents own a little farm where they grow chickens and pigs.

Now compare that with only saying – Children in Guatemala.

This would be the beginning of your story—an introduction to your character. I can picture this young child with big eyes and back hair. Walking on the farm, playing hopscotch with her friends, and doing maths homework.

“If you look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”

Mother Teresa.
water-collecting

Conflict

Now that we are familiar with Laura and her habitat, we introduce the conflict. A challenge. This would be the problem your organization is trying to solve. Every conflict has a villain. Something that is preventing Laura from achieving her dream of becoming a doctor. In Laura’s case, the lack of water. When families don’t have access to water- children often have to help their families to collect water – which usually comes with other dangers. Lack of clean water keeps children, especially girls, not only sick but away from the classroom and unable to learn.

Here is an example of how you could introduce the conflict: 

Laura’s community lacks clean water. This means that Laura, like other children in her community, has to miss school to go fetch water. Very often alone – this means that her education and health are affected and her safety. When there is no clean water at home or at school, girls like Laura stay at home. Menstruation poses yet another cause to keep girls like Laura away from school. Without clean water, Laura will be deprived of a better future, not only for her but for her family and her community.

A conflict gets your readers involved in the solution. What is going to happen to Laura? How can I help? I want her to become a doctor! I want her to be educated and stay safe. 

Conflict is how we claim the need for our program. This is how donors see their help is needed. The only reason to make donors donate is by having them understand what will happen if they don’t take action. 

You can show them that there is hope. It can be challenging to balance the conflict’s negativity and sadness with positivity and hope to retain your donor’s attention. 

This would be the middle of your story. 

Solution

This is where your organization comes in! Here is where you propose a solution to the conflict and tell the prospect donor they can be part of the solution. Here is where your mission kicks in. 

Inspire your donor and share how they can be part of Laura’s life. They can be the heroes that keep Laura and other children in her community at school. They can help Laura to become a doctor and stay safe. 

A key element is to make the reader feel something and create empathy with our character. 

For example: 

But you can change Laura’s future. You can keep Laura in the classroom where she belongs. 

(organization’s name) provides water wells to keep children like Laura on the right path to become a doctor. You can give her hope. 

Do not let access to clean water keep children away from school, away from achieving their dream. Become a donor today. 

Your $60 monthly donation could provide clean and safe drinking water to 20 people every year. 

“I want to be a doctor to save babies” – Laura. 

hopcotch

A few things to keep in mind when building your story:

  • Make sure to include a relevant call-to-action. Asking for a specific amount is better than just saying “please donate.” Make it tangible. Use conversions. This amount could do this. It helps the donor visualize their impact and motivates them to give. 

    As we learned from our past webinar “How to boost your nonprofit social media strategy” co-hosted with VidMob and VidMob Gives, the best call to action verbs across the board are: “Learn” and “get” followed by “Make” and “Join”. Choosing the right call to action will depend on your goal for this story/fundraising campaign as well as the channel where you are sharing it.

    Want to learn more? You can watch the webinar recording here 
  • Keep the balance between negativity (bad news) and positivity (hope).
  • Use visuals. Photography, videos, quotes, etc. This would help you to create emotions and empathy. 

    “I want to be a doctor to save babies” – Laura. 
  • Stay “honest.” Make sure you get the beneficiary’ consent to share their story. Change names to protect their identity and privacy. 

Need some inspiration?  Check out these wonderful examples of storytelling at their best. 

World Bicycle relief – Royce and her two wheels. 
Charity Water – The 15-year-old president.
Save the Children – Nothing is as fierce as a mother’s love. Fatchima’s story.

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