9 Storytelling Mistakes Your Nonprofit May Be Making

Volunteers serving hot meal to people at soup kitchen

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At their core, all fundraising and marketing efforts involve telling stories. Storytelling is the best way to build relationships, cultivate donors and raise money. This is because emotion, and not rational analysis, causes people to take action. Make sure your nonprofit is not making these nine common storytelling mistakes.

1) Over-reliance on Data

Many nonprofits make data central to their fundraising and marketing campaigns because it showcases the need and the importance of the issue.

The Greater Boston Food Bank has some compelling data on its website. Statistics like: “One in 9 people in our community is at risk of hunger.” While that is a shocking statistic, I would like to see the stories and faces of people helped by the Greater Boston Food Bank—a family, a child, a single mother. Data can often be dry and hard to relate to on a personal level.

In storytelling, data often does not need to be incorporated at all. If you must use data, think about ways that you can make the data more compelling and accessible to your audience, within the context of your story. 

2) No Compelling Visual

We want to see the story—not just read a big block of text. How can you tell the story with an eye-catching visual, or even better, with a short video? This is a big challenge for many nonprofits, but one that you need to overcome to succeed in the attention economy, where visuals rule.

Great examples of nonprofits using visuals in their storytelling include the Denver Rescue Mission on Facebook and UNICEF USA on Pinterest.

3) No Clear Reason

Is there a reason that you are telling this story? For what purpose? If the audience doesn’t understand the reason for the story right at the beginning, they will be confused and stop paying attention.

Seth Godin got it right when he said that a story is on the right track if the audience would not tolerate it stopping in the middle.

4) No Context

We need to understand the story in the larger context. What do you want us to understand your organization and the problem you are solving?

Are you helping more women this year, as shown by the example of Client A? Is there a growing need for your services, as demonstrated by Client B, who waited a full year to see a counselor?

5) No Protagonist

Your organization is fantastic and wonderful. But it can’t be the protagonist of your story. A protagonist is a person or persons (a family for example) that suffered challenges, made choices, and had an ending. That ending could be a victory (a success story) or defeat (a learning experience).

I see too many videos about "Fabulous Nonprofit Organization celebrating 45 years in the community and winning 60 awards. That is all well and good, but did those 45 years make a tangible difference in the lives of the people served?

6) Thinking Slick Video Production Equals a Great Story

Some of the best stories are told by nonprofits on Instagram and made with smartphone cameras and posted to YouTube. Professional video production certainly has its place. Knowledgeable video storytellers can help you frame the story and make your organization look professional, and create a video that you can use for years to come.

However, it is not necessary to tell the daily stories that are so vital to connecting with online audiences. Just because you spend a lot of money on a video does not mean that you will tell a great story.

7) Silo-ing the Storytellers

Storytelling is the job of the entire organization—staff and volunteers. Identifying and collecting great stories to use should fall under everyone’s job description.

Use professional development tools and training to educate the staff and volunteers on the importance of finding impact stories to use to help explain just how important the organization is to the community.

8) Focusing on the Tools

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are all tools that you can use to share your story far and wide. “Getting on Facebook” is not a strategy—it is simply a check mark on a To Do list.

Simply creating profiles on these channels will not help your nonprofit make better stories—the stories must come first, and then they can be molded and shaped to fit the specific platform.

9) Thinking it’s a Onetime Deal

OK, you may think—we have one fabulous story! We are all set! (Not so.) 

Storytelling is an ongoing process. You will constantly need new stories to apply to your online marketing and fundraising channels, your annual appeal letters, your annual reports, your grant applications, and your events.

Changing the culture of the organization is imperative to succeed in storytelling.

Note: When using a story about an individual person or child be sure not to endanger that individual. When necessary, disguise the name and shield the face of any person who could be in peril.