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An Introduction to Nonprofit Storytelling

Author: Terry Ibele
November 30, 2017
🕑 7 min read

What’s happened when you’ve read or watched a story that engaged you? Chances are you’re still probably thinking about it. It was that memorable. One of the first nonprofit stories that I remember was a thank you video from the Ride to Conquer Cancer British Columbia Cancer Foundation. In fact, I still remember the two people who spoke that moved me to tears. It was that good!

Storytelling is a tool nonprofits can use in a variety of ways including to improve fundraising and communications, create immersive website experiences, or engaging social media relationships.

My basic definition of storytelling is this — a story is a series of facts told with emotions and details. I often see organizations tell stories that really grasp the facts part of the definition. The stories give us a play by play of what happened. But without the emotions and details, it becomes more like a timeline than a story. The emotions and details are what bring that story to life.

The other reason why the details and emotions of the story matter so much is because they give rise to empathy. Empathy is what storytelling is really about.

Empathy is feeling with, as opposed to feeling for, which is sympathy. I think about empathy as the point the where the story is resonating on a deep level. Someone can relate to that story through life experience, emotional experience, or something else. No matter what that point of relatability is, it makes the story memorable. If you watched the video linked above, you’ll see that people talk about their relationships to cancer and it provides viewers with many entry points into the conversation.

If you’d like to read more about empathy and storytelling, you might enjoy this resource: What’s The Point of Telling a Story Anyway?

To tell memorable and engaging stories, there are three things your organization needs to think about.


1) What Is Your Goal?

I always tell my clients and students, never tell a story just for the sake of telling a story. That’s a sure fire way to be ineffective. Instead, see storytelling as a tactic for achieving a goal. For example, I was once working with a client who was very sure that they needed to embark on a storytelling campaign. I asked them what they meant by this and they said that a storytelling campaign would help them raise more money. I suggested that if their real goal was to raise money, they should focus on that as the goal and not the other way around.

Here are a A few examples of goals.

  • Raising $5,000
  • Recruiting 20 new members
  • Improving the conversion rate on a landing page
  • Any goal where the right message and content might make a difference is an opportunity for storytelling.


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2) Who Is the Audience?

Once you know your goal, it’s time to define your audience as a specifically as possible. Who is it you are trying to reach? What are the demographics and psychographics of the audience? Knowing this information will help you determine, with greater certainty, what will truly resonate with your audience. If you are not sure who your audience is, start by getting to know those who currently follow or support your nonprofit. They are your natural audience and getting to know them will give you clues about who else to connect with.


3) What Is the Message?

The final choice that will influence what story you choose to tell is the message you want to get across. A message is that one key point that you want people to remember and (potentially) respond to. In instances where there is a call to action involved, I identify the message by thinking about the reason why someone would answer the call to action. Going back to the Ride to Conquer Cancer video, their message is one of thanks and gratitude to the riders and people who donated. But really, it’s a message that anyone can make a different.

By making these three decisions first, you’ll be able to tell a story strategically and purposefully.

When it comes to selecting the specific story you want to tell, come back to these first three decisions you made. Which story will help you best communicate your message? Which story will resonate with your audience? If you have more than one story, you might also want to consider the medium that you’ll be using to tell the story. For instance, if you want to turn the story into a video for your website, is the person willing to be interviewed on camera?

10 Interview Tips That Lead to Better Storytelling

You know by now that telling stories about the work you do and the people you serve is a great way to educate and inspire your supporters about your cause. But you can’t write a good story without getting your facts straight and drawing some good quotes out of the people you are featuring.

1. Don’t ask for information you can easily get elsewhere.

Do your homework. Don’t ask your board chair where she works or what her title is. Don’t ask a donor how much he has given your organization. You should already have that information. It’s OK to ask people to confirm the spelling of their names or if the total amount donated over several years sounds right to them, but this should be presented as quick fact-checking, not as part of the interview.

2. Don’t fall into Tedious Bio Syndrome.

It’s the narrative equivalent of a résumé. Or worse, you start when they were born. Profiles that start that way are total snoozers and so are the interviews themselves.

3. Be flexible about the format.

You can get the information you need whether you conduct the interview in person, over the phone, or via email. I find it’s actually easier to take good notes while interviewing over the phone, rather than in person, because I don’t have to worry about maintaining eye contact, and I can type much faster than I can write. People who are a bit nervous about being interviewed often prefer email, because it gives them time to mull over their answers.

4. Prepare a list of questions, but be willing to stray from it.

Come up with some good questions to get the conversation going, but don’t be afraid to ask new questions or take the interview in a different direction, as long as you are getting good details and quotes. Listen for intriguing details or good sound bites and follow them.

5. Ask open-ended questions that contain “emotional” words.

Fact-filled profiles simply aren’t as interesting as those full of feeling and emotion. To get your subject to provide you with good anecdotes and quotes, ask questions that are variations on “How did that make you feel?” Try questions like “What has surprised you most about . . . ?,” “What upsets you most about . . . ?,” and “What do you remember most about . . .”

6. Don’t be a gushing fan.

It’s fine if you admire the person you are talking to, but don’t interview them as a fan. You’ll end up writing the worst kind of profile: the Obvious Kiss Up. Be nice to your VIPs, but don’t overdo it.

7. If you are writing the story with a specific purpose in mind, ask some leading questions.

For example, if you are profiling Mrs. Smith because she put your nonprofit in her will, and you want to encourage others to do the same, you need to ask Mrs. Smith some leading questions to elicit the right kind of quotes. For example, you might ask, “Why did you select our nonprofit specifically when you could have left your gift to any group?” and “How did you feel after you made the decision?” Asking donors about the kind of legacy they want to leave behind can also work well.

8. Don’t go astray with entertaining but irrelevant stories. 

Sometimes you’ll interview someone who loves to talk and tell you funny stories about all of their friends. While it might be a very entertaining conversation for both of you, you will end up with little that you can use in your profile. Warming up to each other with stories about crazy adventures abroad are fine, but then steer the conversation back to the subject of the profile.

9. Give the interviewee control over the content.

This is not hard news or “gotcha” journalism. You are profiling people because you care about them and because they care about your cause. Ask if your profile subject would like to see the story you write before it is published (most will say yes). Give them a few days to get back to you with any changes they feel are important. This ensures not only that you have your facts straight, but that your supporters are pleased with the way they are portrayed in your communications.

10. Follow up within a few days with any additional questions.

Don’t wait too long after your original interview to write the profile. That way you can quickly follow up with additional questions while the conversation is still fresh in both of your minds.

There are a lot of opportunities for storytelling. In the video I shared, the stories are told by event participants and volunteers. You can also tell stories about donors, clients, program participants, your ED or founder, board members, and activists. In addition to thinking about the characters in the story, you can also think about telling these stories: your founding story, your vision story, your movement story, and your impact story.

Storytelling, like most endeavors in the nonprofit sector, is really about making a series of decisions. Part of the success is starting with the right questions. I hope these tips will set you up for storytelling success.

Additional Resources:

Vanessa Chase Nonprofit StorytellingVanessa Chase Lockshin is an international nonprofit consultant, thought leader, speaker, and author of The Storytelling Non-Profit: A practical guide to telling stories that raise money and awareness. She’s part of the next generation of professionals bringing change to the nonprofit sector and challenging conventions.

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