Storytelling Explained

Everyone in the nonprofit world is talking about storytelling, but does it live up to the hype?  Find out why it works and how to tell better stories to engage and inspire donors online.

Storytelling: an essential skill if you are a novelist, a film maker, or even if you have young children to put to bed.  So why, you may find yourself asking, is it being increasingly touted as a core competence for nonprofit professionals and fundraisers?

The answer lies in the power of the story to convey information in a way that is relatable, entertaining and memorable. In today’s world, in which we’re exposed to an endless stream of information and media content, an authentic, surprising or feel-good story breaks through the noise and creates an impression that seemingly bypasses the head and goes straight to the heart.

And that’s exactly what we seek to do as crowdfunders. In a short project pitch, designed for sharing on email and social media soundbites, we can’t afford to be verbose, present intellectually rigorous statements or focus on statistics (although of course, we should have these latter two to support other areas of our work).  A much quicker way to convince people that what we’re doing is working and makes a real difference in the world, is to SHOW them.  A story is the perfect way to do this, a window from our world to theirs, a human touch that creates a connection, generates empathy, and therefore inspires people to act, or rather, to donate.   

Moreover, that human touch and the dramatic arc of stories makes them inherently more engaging to individuals across the board.  They attract our attention more quickly, keep us interested until we know the outcome, and not only do they speak to us the first-time audience, they are more memorable and inspire more “shares” – great news for crowdfunders, for whom success is based on share-ability of our content on social media and digital platforms in order to reach new and wider audiences.


So, what are the ingredients of a great story and how can we integrate them into our crowdfunding campaigns?


  1. First, your story needs a clear OBJECTIVE. Ask yourself why are you telling a story, what change should occur in the listener as a result of hearing your story? You may also want to consider which type of story will fit into trending topics, which angle it should have in order to be picked up by individuals and/or the media.  


  1. Next, choose a PROTAGONIST. It shouldn’t be the organization itself because the best stories help us relate to a person, not an institution. (In other words, remember that donors don’t give TO an organization, they give to others THROUGH an organization.) Think about the unsung heroes/ heroines who you work with and how they could share their story.


  1. STRUCTURE AND CONTENT come next. For structure, remember you must have a start, middle and end. All writers, film makers and bedside storytellers instinctively use the dramatic curve, starting from the current situation, explaining the challenges the protagonist faces, the struggle to overcome them and a denouement or resolution, all the while showing a clear understanding of what is at stake if s/he doesn’t manage it.  For content, ask yourself, how can you make the story inspiring? Remember not to focus on on the funds or the activities to be carried out, but highlight the final purpose of the project, the dreams and aspirations of the hero/ine and the wider community.


  1. Finally, include a clear CALL TO ACTION.  A good way to transition is to relate the situation of the protagonist to a community-wide or global situation, explaining how it affects everyone in the end.  Provide readers/viewers with an answer to the question: what should I do now and how good will it make me feel?


Once you have the structure of your story based on these points, you can work out how to tell it.  Nowadays most people opt for a short video (we recommend 1-3 minutes), a series of photos with accompanying explanations, or a short narrative often in the form of a testimony or personal experience.  However you craft your main version of the story, remember the golden rule, “create once, use everywhere”:  you can post your story on your HIPGive campaign page as part of your pitch but also share it widely across other media, draft a longer version in an email and use only key quotes and images for Facebook or Twitter.

Many nonprofits find it helpful to request pro bono help from creative agencies who help with storyboarding, production and editing of videos, or professional photo shoots, but just as many successful crowdfunding campaigns stories are shot with a short script and a smartphone.  As long as you have a clear grasp on the concepts above and communicate in an authentic way, your story will create a positive impact.  

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools that we can harness to engage and motivate donors. People don’t want to give their money away, they want to give to organisations to make things happen, so in your next campaign rather than just presenting what your organization does, tell us a story.
Learn how to include storytelling in your crowdfunding video here or sign up for our next training webinar where we’ll be talking about storytelling in the context of our Hispanic Heritage matching funds contest.