Why storytelling is essential for NGOs and Nonprofits

Written by Owen Priestley on 3rd October 2022

(Last updated 8th November 2023)

From Steve Jobs to our own Richard Branson, entrepreneurs have been extolling the positives of storytelling for their products for decades. My own favorite ‘ad man’ from the Mad Men era of sixties advertising, Howard Luck Gossage, was another high-profile cheerleader for the effectiveness of the simple story. 

It seems that NGOs and Nonprofits should already know that narratives and stories are perfect for building empathy and providing relevance. If this is the case, how do they lose sight of its importance?

How storytelling can get lost

When onboarding a new client, I often see how the ‘internalisation’ of an organisation's culture cancels out any positive messages their audiences can relate to. The stories or narratives that would make their mission or mandate come alive are buried, diluted, or simply lost. 

The biggest challenge an NGO or Nonprofit faces is to keep the public (and other stakeholders) interested in their mission, for their audience to see their mission as an important and relevant issue, and to see that you are able to provide answers, the solution, and the evidence of your progress. When we lose sight of our audience we lose the opportunity to engage, influence, and motivate them.

Focusing on the audience

One of the biggest challenges we face when embarking on a new relationship with a client is to bring their audience back into the room with them. So often I see language, tone of voice, identity, and even information architecture all become a reflection of an internal culture, or way of seeing themselves, rather than a reflection of their audience's desires and needs.

When we start to focus on our audience, we start to think about their journey - what triggers them to want to interact or transact with you? What is their motivation and objective? Their frustrations and fears?

We can then start to think about how we construct our content to follow a narrative that aligns with their needs. It is not enough to simply display a mission or mandate. Your visitors will want to know about the challenge you face - why do you exist and, more importantly, why should I care? What is the response you have made to combat this challenge and where is the proof of your impact? How can I get involved, and what impact could I make?

Bringing the narrative back

So how can we make sure stories and narratives are at the heart of our communication strategy? Some vital starting points would be to review your mission and mandate messages and content. Are you presenting the problem, or the challenge we are all facing, with enough focus? Show us why we should care, why we should take action, and what the outcomes of our action would be.

Show evidence of your impact, and have this front and center. Use real people and their stories as a narrative for your activity, your influence, and the positive outcomes you have made. Illustrate challenges and opportunities through the words and actions of real human beings.

Every organisation needs a cheerleader for that organisation's narrative. Whether it sits within marketing, communications, or programme management, have an individual (or even better a team) be the governance around your narrative, and have the necessary checks and balances in place that ensures all your outreach is wrapped inside a narrative structure that emphasizes the challenges you face, and the evidence that proves your impact.

But most of all, bring all your focus back to your audience, understand them, and what will resonate with them. 


“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”

Jimmy Neil Smith, Director of the International Storytelling Center

 

This article was posted in Nonprofit by Owen Priestley

  • Owen Priestley

    Owen Priestley

    Owen is an award winning designer, strategist and user experience practitioner with over 20 years experience working within the digital design and communication industry. @owen20three