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Experts Break Down the Science of Nonprofit Storytelling

The EveryAction Team

Lately, we've been obsessed with storytelling. From capturing an audience's attention to inspiring listeners to action, telling great stories is equal parts creative and scientific. 

For nonprofits, great storytelling, especially in the digital space, is changing donor behavior in all of the best ways (think: more action, deeper connection, and higher donation rates.)

We hosted Amy Saidman (Executive Director - Story District) and Alex Herder (President - The Duke & the Duck) for a discussion on how nonprofits can break down the storytelling process.

Watch the full discussion below or continue reading for tips on how to crack the science of storytelling!


Make a Hypothesis

Before launching a new storytelling campaign, it's important to start by setting ambitious, yet realistic goals. Ask yourself: What measurable outcomes would make this storytelling initiative successful? What end result is most important? What specific action do I want to inspire my audience to take? 

When setting these goals, it's important to understand your constraints. Whether this is budget, staff time, or location, you need to know these early in the process to avoid the project getting derailed.

As Alex Herder said, "When it comes to storytelling and video, authenticity often trumps production quality." Don't let resources hold you back. Focus on the quality and sincerity of your story, and your audience will take notice.


Research Your Audience

Get to know your audience. Research what they care about, why they already like your organization, and where they're most likely to hear your message. Define who are you trying to reach, and research the best way to connect with them?

Instead of focusing on total strangers who have never seen your website, create a story for the people who already care about what you do. These are the same people who are passionate and engaged, and therefore infinitely more likely share your message with their network. Serve this narrow audience, make them your advocates, and fuel the emotional, personal connection of your story. 

Just as important as knowing your audience, is defining  what action you want them to take. Whether it's volunteering, social justice, or donating, it's your job to make it easy for them to complete that action. 




One story can be told in infinite different ways and on countless mediums. Outline the most important ingredients to your story, and then work with each component until it shines.

Amy Saidman, Executive Director of Story District outlined the key ingredients of a story to help you get started.

What makes your audience care? 

For your listeners to care, you need both a protagonist and something that's at stake. You want your audience to feel like they really know your protagonist at the end of the story. If you accomplish this, they won't be able to help rooting for them (and as a result your cause). 

The best, most empathetic stories will incorporate a universal truth. Framing your story with a universal truth will better connect your audience to you, your mission, and one another. Think about family bonds, understanding, respect, societal pressures, etc. Incorporating a universal truth shifts the dialogue from you describing why your organization cares about X, to why a single audience can relate to that cause.

What keeps your audience interested?

The basic components every story must include are context, tension, and change. Context is all about the environment you paint for your audience. The strongest context is one that's almost cinematic. Try to make the environment so vivid, that it's easy for your audience to visualize. Next, think about the tension. No story can exist without tension - this is what pulls your audience in and keeps them interested. The final element is change. How does your protagonist or the environment change over the course of the story? This could be something tangible, a feeling, or a loss.

 Again, try to think of all the different ways you can tell a single story, and then refine to what is the most compelling and authentic. Get feedback not only from your team, but stakeholders and your core audience to see what resonates and what falls short. Storytelling is a constant process of experimenting - so get out there and start telling your story.


Process of Sharing

You've set your goals, researched your audience, crafted your story, and experimented with the content and delivery. Push back your lab goggles, because the end is in sight. After production, it's time to distribute and share your story. Ask yourself: Where does your story go? 


Storytelling is an opportunity to share information within your organization in a fun, easily digestible way. Imagine sharing the top stories from your department with the rest of your nonprofit. This could be in a monthly meeting, weekly email, etc. Open, engaging communication will improve your organization's transparency, and help different teams better understand the what, why, and how of your efforts.

If you are going the internal route, make sure you give your team time to foster a storytelling culture. Honing your message, delivery, and general storytelling skills takes both time and practice. If you want to improve, make sure the building blocks are in place for your team to become skilled storytellers. Practice, hone, refine, and practice again.

Why allocate story time - didn't that end in kindergarten? By training your employees to develop the story of their campaigns and initiatives, you're giving them the tools to share highlights of your organization with their personal, very interested network. Empower your employees and grow your audience at the same time.


This is the most common avenue for large storytelling campaigns - you sharing your story with the world and inspiring action and emotional connection. What platform is best for your story? Really evaluate the best method and medium to tell your story, and don't be afraid to try different things.

Tests are essential - just track what works well, what doesn't work so well, and adapt as you learn what's suited to your audience, resources, environment, and goals.


Analyze Data, Draw Conclusions

Track the metrics you care about (engagement, amount donated, volunteer signups, web traffic, etc), and analyze the results. If your call to action isn't effective, consider incorporating a smaller, easier ask. 

Getting higher web traffic than you hypothesized? That's awesome! Try and find the root cause, so that you can replicate it for future campaigns. 

Storytellers, the most important thing is for you to get out there and show us what you've got! We can't wait to see what you create and inspire. 


Have more questions about storytelling or great examples to share? Tell us on Twitter!

Download the Essential Elements of Digital Storytelling guide

Topics: marketing, nonprofit storytelling, webinar