How to use stories in nonprofit marketing

Image by Cockburn Libraries via Flickr

stories are not just for children

Those of us in the nonprofit marketing business are hot on stories.  In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any nonprofit marketing advice on the web these days that doesn’t mention, at least in passing, how important it is to incorporate stories into your marketing.

The problem is, we sometimes leave out the “How am I supposed to do that?” part.  To help rectify that oversight, here are four specific ways nonprofit organizations can use stories to better connect with their people.

Use a story to clarify an idea

If your work is complicated, technical or abstract, this kind of story can mean the difference between supporters nodding in agreement and nodding off to sleep.  The more complex the idea you are trying to convey, the more likely it is a story can help.  This is why I learned more about how the United States government functions from watching The West Wing, than I did from government classes.

Use a story to create a bridge

This is my favorite way to use stories because it helps listeners use an idea they already understand as a decoder ring for a new idea*.    For example, what theatre people already know about acting can serve as a bridge to developing good social media etiquette.

This concept also works in the other direction.  While most nonprofit leaders know more about crisis management than they do about role-playing, framing an organizational crisis as a quest rather than just a crappy day at the office makes the situation more manageable–even for leaders who know nothing about polyhedral dice.

Use a story to persuade or teach

This is one of the oldest uses of stories.  Aesop called them fables, Jesus called them parables but the idea is the same.  By using a seemingly simple story to illustrate a surprising point, stories help people change the way they see the world.   My favorite example of using story in this way is the starfish story. (If you don’t know this story, be sure to click through–it’s a great inspiration especially for people trying to fix big problems.)

Use a story to connect emotionally

No matter what your cause, supporters give because of an emotional connection, not (just) an intellectual one.  Therefore, all the data in the world is less compelling than the story of how your donation can help save one little girl.

If your cause involves helping kids or dogs, this emotional connection is fairly obvious, but the idea also applies to causes that are not so warm and fuzzy.  When I managed a local robot building competition the program’s most obvious benefit to company owners was a financial one–more qualified workers means more opportunities for growth.  As sound as it was, that financial argument stopped working when times got tough.

You know what didn’t stop working?  Those who continued to support the program through the recession said they did so because the program provided a way for them to “pay forward” the mentoring and support they had received early in their own careers.

Your Turn

How does your organization use story to connect with your people?

If you are stumped on the story front, tell us about your cause in the comments and we’ll help you find a story connection.

*Someone less geeky than me would probably just  call it a metaphor.

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