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5 Things (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong About Nonprofit Storytelling

Elliot Rysenbry

We asked storytelling expert Vanessa Chase of The Storytelling Non-Profit to share the most common mistakes organizations make when talking about how + why they do what they do. Read on for her advice on doing nonprofit storytelling right! 

Check out the brand new Epic Guide to Nonprofit Storytelling!

993866Photo credit: ginnerobot / Foter / CC BY-SA

When it comes to communications, using narrative is a compelling way to connect with your audience. There are numerous ways to communicate with your audience, but as recent research has shown (cited in The New York Times article “Your Brain on Fiction”), stories actually engage different parts of your brain than traditional communication.

What does that mean for nonprofit communications? It means that we have an opportunity to engage, inspire and captivate our donor audiences like never before when we tell stories.

We can use stories and narrative structures as the basis for all communications, and get better results. By telling stories to our audience, we are showing them what they can be a part of; how they can get involved in the action. That is the power of storytelling – we show others how they can play a vital role in that story.

But these days stories are a dime a dozen. There are more organizations out there than ever before competing for attention. While stories can help your organization stand out from the crowd, not all stories are equal. In fact, there are 5 common mistakes that organizations make when telling their stories.


Mistake #1 – They Don’t Identify Their Audience

Time and time again, I talk to organizations that describe their audience in such a broad, sweeping manner. When you do not narrowly define and research your target audience, you are not able to effectively communicate with your audience. From the outset, it is useful to create an audience profile.


Mistake #2 – Not Creating a Core Message

Once you know whom your audience is, it is important to know what message you want your story to communicate. This is known as a core message and it drive your communication strategy. As I often say to my clients, “we are not telling a story for the sake of telling a story.” Make sure that you know what message you are trying to communicate.


Mistake #3 – Skimming Over the Conflict

The heart of a captivating story is the conflict. We want to know that toil that the character faced in getting to the resolution. Or, if the conflict is not yet resolved, we want to know the details of the fight. But all too often stories are told in a quick before and after fashion. When telling a story be sure to talk about the things that prevented the character from reaching their resolution – those are the essential components of their conflict. Additionally, conflict helps your audience identify their values in story.

nonprofit storytelling guide

Mistake #4 – Telling the Same Story Every Time

As we identified in Mistake #2, it is important to have a core message. But once you have a core message, you should not use to the same tactic each time you communicate this message. All too often organizations will use very similar conflicts and characters when they tell a story. But this can seem redundant and after a while it will lose its inspiring spark. Mix it up! Find new angles, new characters, and new conflicts for your stories.


Mistake #5 – A Call to Action

You’ve told your audience a compelling story, pulled at their heartstrings with a conflict and given them a resolution. And so your story ends. Not yet! The right way to end your story is with a call to action. The point of your story was to convey a core message and give your audience a way to have their own role in the story. This is where a call to action comes into play. Give your audience a strong, clear to action that tells them how to get involved.


Now that you know these common mistakes, you can avoid them in the next story you tell. Create checklist that outlines these common mistakes so that each time your organization produces a story, you can quickly reference them before you begin sharing the story with your audience.


VanessaChase15Apr2014-5-3198824182-OcopyAbout the author: Vanessa Chase is the President of The Storytelling Non-Profit – a communications and fundraising consulting firm. She’s worked with organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada and to date has raised more than $10 million. 

For more great storytelling insights, follow @vanessaechase on Twitter! 

Topics: nonprofit storytelling