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Creating Nonprofit Stories Worth Sharing

Post written by Aline Newman, Catalogue for Philanthropy Director of Marketing and Communications

The first story I ever wrote was called “The Day it Rained Birthday Cakes.” At the age of six, I was convinced that in merely four sentences I had written the next great American short story.

As children, storytelling is an integral part of the way we develop and learn to communicate. Fairytales, nursery rhymes and short stories are often passed down with the similar “plot-conflict-resolution” structure. As adults, storytelling evolves to become not only part of how we learn, entertain and persuade, but also how we build relationships with friends, family and colleagues. We share our stories (and stories of others) with ease in conversations both online and offline.

Yet, when it comes to telling stories on behalf of our organization, storytelling becomes more of a strategic challenge than merely a natural extension of the way we communicate. It requires us to assess not only the intended audience, their motivations and where to reach them, but also the risks (such as sharing benefactors’ stories with dignity) and expected outcomes once the story is shared (such as fundraising or volunteering). As nonprofits it is up to each of us to determine how we define our unique stories; however, as a sector we have an opportunity to learn from one another about how we can tell our stories more effectively and inspire change.

This morning, the Meyer Foundation hosted Julie Dixon of Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies to present key findings from their joint research project: “Stories Worth Sharing: Storytelling for Nonprofits.” During the course of their research, Julie and her team at the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) sorted through hundreds of nonprofit stories in order to better understand the general nonprofit storytelling landscape and how local organizations share their stories online. While the full research analysis will be available later this spring, Julie shared key insights to get nonprofits thinking about the realities and opportunities that exist when it comes to storytelling and their organization.

Among some of the insights shared, one of most striking was the gap in the recognized importance of storytelling, and our ability to do it well. Nearly all nonprofits surveyed (96%) agreed that storytelling is an important part of communication, yet only 23 percent were satisfied with the quantity of their content, and 39 percent satisfied with the quality. While it’s good that nonprofits see the critical importance of storytelling, there is still a tremendous opportunity for the sector in creating richer and more accessible content.

Another interesting takeaway (and great news for smaller nonprofits): According to the research, there is no direct correlation between having a large budget and strong storytelling. So if it’s not always about the budget, what makes for good storytelling? Thinking about the insights presented we can glean that having a clearly defined audience and call-to-action are of course important (84% and 68% of nonprofits, respectively, already do these regularly as part of their storytelling), but so is making your story easily accessible and shareable, both on a traditional desktop and a mobile device. Think about the last time you looked at your website on a mobile phone or tablet: Did your video, images and text appear as you expected? Accessibility aside, developing to-the-point, original content (i.e. changing your stories’ heroes, challenges and calls to action) can keep an audience engaged and excited to find out “what’s new?” with your organization, and at the end of the day an engaged audience is perhaps our most valuable asset in fulfilling our missions.

This spring, Julie and the team at CSIC will continue to share how nonprofits can improve storytelling and make our stories worth sharing. While our storytelling as nonprofit organizations may not be as simple as a four-sentence exploration in birthday cakes falling from the sky, we certainly believe that by applying the best practices shared by CSIC in the coming months, it can be just as (if not more) gratifying.

Note: In addition to CSIC’s publications, the Catalogue for Philanthropy will also be exploring the topic of storytelling in upcoming workshops. Stay tuned for details!

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