A few months ago, someone asked me about how to start a storytelling campaign for her nonprofit. She wanted to spread the word about how the nonprofit helps young people who are blind and have developmental disabilities. She teaches gardening and horticulture and helps her students to run a business and deal with a few clients. I gave her a basic strategy for a storytelling campaign that used different social media channels, as well as a website and blog.
Other nonprofits that want to tell their story can do more than just launching a newsletter or being active on Twitter. If you see your ongoing communication as one long story — think of it as a long-running TV series
This is a strategy any nonprofit could use to tell the stories about their efforts and the communities they serve. The goal is to help potential donors and volunteers get to know the people they’re helping. If you can put a face and name to your work, people are more likely to give.
This is one of the reasons nearly all fundraising letters have you “meet” one of their recipients. Someone who needs your help, and who has been helped by that organization. And you can help more people just like this one just by donating $10 per month.
1. What stories do you want to tell?
Before starting a storytelling campaign, you need to figure out what story you actually want to tell. A story can have a few parts to it, so you can have more than one focus.
In fact, you could think of your story as a TV show, where there is usually an A story, a B story, and a C story. The A story gets the most attention and time, the B story gets the second most, and the C story gets the least. In a 22-minute sitcom, the A story may get 9 – 11 minutes of storytime, the B story gets 6 – 8 minutes, and the C story gets 3 – 5 minutes.
So your A story could be how you help people through a meal delivery service, your B story could be your mobile health clinic, and your C story could be your future plan to open an apartment building with in-house medical facilities.
That means your meal delivery service gets the most “air time,” the mobile health clinic gets the second most, and the apartment building gets the least. That doesn’t mean you don’t talk about the B and C stories, or that they’re always second and third on the list of your blog articles and videos. Rather, it means they get to be the sole focus of your attention once in a while.
2. Identify your channels
Now you need to know where you want to promote your story. And you do that by figuring out where your target audience is. Essentially, you want to “fish where the fish are.”
If you do a lot of events where people are likely to share photos of themselves, then you want to be on Instagram. If you don’t have a huge visual component to your storytelling, then you can skip Instagram. If your audience is older, you should focus more on Facebook and skip Snapchat.
But you can also double up in a few places. Since Facebook owns Instagram, you can automate your posting between both networks. If you post things to Instagram, you can set it up so those things automatically post to Facebook. You can even use an automation service like IFTTT (If This, Then That) or Zapier to automatically push photos to Twitter.
Just don’t go nuts. Limit the number of social channels you join, rather than joining as many as you can. You may have heard a lot about Clubhouse, Fireside, Snapchat, and every other new tool people are buzzing about, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of your attention.
Instead, pick the ones that are well-established and show some signs of longevity. I normally recommend Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for most nonprofits. You could also use LinkedIn, but I typically advise against it unless your nonprofit deals with work — teaching reading and life skills, helping people develop skills to find a job, educational institutions, etc.
You’ll also want a weekly or monthly newsletter — your newsletter is where you’ll collect the email addresses of your donors, volunteers, and supporters. This list is your lifeblood because these are the people who keep you in business and help you support your mission.
3. Your channels will affect your content.
What do you have the capabilities and time to produce? What does your audience want? Do you have a lot of people who watch and share videos? Or do they prefer reading long-form content? You can figure that out just by asking them with a survey.
Once you know what they would prefer, start giving it to them. Maybe it’s a weekly 700-word blog article, maybe it’s daily photos of your birds of prey, or a weekly podcast interviewing other people in your nonprofit’s mission.
At the very least, I do recommend photos and blog articles. The blog helps with search engine optimization and your search rankings, but this is where most of your storytelling is going to happen. Your blog is where you get to explore the nitty-gritty of your work, explain your positions on policy decisions, analyze how new laws and regulations affect you. It can also provide you content for a newsletter.
And if you have the time and capabilities, consider a podcast or video series about your nonprofit’s greater mission. For example, if your nonprofit is about rehabilitating injured birds of prey, start an educational video or podcast series that teaches people about birds of prey, the different kinds of birds there are, and how they live.
4. How will you tell your stories?
We’ve done the easy part, now is the hard part. How do we tell your stories? Do you tell an individual’s story? Do you tell the group’s story? Your organization’s origin and success story?
Start with what amount to case studies and testimonials. Take one person who is involved with your organization, talk about their experience before they got involved, what they learned, and how it’s helped them afterward.
For example, your story would look like this: John had a problem. He was 100 pounds overweight, constantly tired, and was at risk of diabetes. He had tried different diets, but nothing had worked, and he was worried he was going to have serious illnesses in a couple years. So John started an exercise program at Major Payne’s Get Fit Boot Camp. In 9 months, John had lost 100 pounds, had plenty of energy, and reduced his risk for diabetes by 82%. He even grew back all his hair, married a supermodel, and won the lottery.
Basically, you can build an entire campaign on stories like this. You know what you need to write and tell, and you can place each of them into your A, B, and C stories.
And you can break them up so that for every three A stories you write, you write two B stories and one C story.
You can produce a video or shoot some pictures, write a blog article, share it on your chosen social channels — share it more than once in a week; three or four times per week is perfectly acceptable — and produce those stories once or twice a week.
5. What is your storytelling campaign’s throughline?
Throughline is another TV term. It’s the underlying theme of a movie or TV show. It’s not the story, but it’s the motivation behind the story.
For example, the throughline of the Captain America movies is “Cap hates bullies.” So everything we see him do is based on his intense dislike of bullies.
Your throughline is related to the purpose of your organization. It could be education, it could be housing, it could be creating awareness of a particular disease or societal problem.
If your purpose is education, your stories will show how you’re educating your target audience, such as adult literacy, helping at-risk youth, or animal rescue. Your stories won’t be about teaching, mentoring, or saving, but that will always run through your stories.
For example, you won’t do a video on “this is how we saved this dog” or even “The 12 steps we take to save dogs.” But you’ll write about a dog that you saved, cleaned, and adopted out to a loving family.
So your stories should include your throughline. Even if you were doing a “meet our staff” story, you would want to focus on how they help fulfill your purpose and mission.
Starting a storytelling campaign can be a little difficult, but if you just start with the basics — pick a couple channels, decide what story to tell, and follow your throughline — you’ll quickly figure out what to do and how to do it.
Don’t worry if creating stories is hard or you’re not very good at first. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll get better, and pretty soon you’ll be whipping out those stories, editing those videos, and writing those blog articles like they’re second nature. As long as you build a good storytelling campaign framework, you can easily see what works and what doesn’t work, and you’ll have a formula to follow with every new story you write.