Nonprofit Storytelling: How the Power of 'Why' Can Increase Advocates, Donations

You may recall Simon Sinek’s brilliant TED Talk from a few years back, “The Power of Why.” During his 20-minute talk, Simon discussed a powerfully simple model for leadership: inspiration. Among other things, he highlighted the difference between how Apple and other tech companies approach their brands, and the reasons many people choose Apple.

What Simon pointed out, and what most of us know, is that Apple leads with its core values and beliefs in all of its communication.

Apple knew first and foremost that through its brand it wanted to establish a personal connection to buyers and demonstrate a shared belief with every product it introduced. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” said Simon.

That strategy isn’t just for tech companies. If other industries, such as nonprofits, would adopt this mindset, they’d move the needle a lot faster and connect to their customers more effectively. The truth is, nonprofits struggle to find their voice in storytelling. But the answer is simple: Do as Simon says—concentrate on the power of Why.

If you are part of a nonprofit struggling to gain donor support, get your team in the same room and ask yourselves two questions.

1. What’s your mission? Do you, your board, and your staff know how to communicate the mission clearly? You’d be surprised how differently missions are communicated, depending on who is doing the talking. Start bringing your mission to the forefront of all your communications.

For example: place your mission on top of all meeting agendas, whether it’s a board, staff, or committee meeting. Then make it a point to discuss whether all decisions made in the meeting clearly support the mission.

2. What’s your ‘Why’? Do you truly know why donors give? Why volunteers support you with their time and talents? Why community members participate in programs? Why advocates raise awareness?

Simply asking why people have skin in the game will reveal compelling and deeply personal stories that get down to the heart of why they do what they do on behalf of the nonprofit.

Once you’ve established a clear mission and the why behind it, it’s time to make sure that your overall story is being told correctly. People give to people, not organizations. Most giving is motivated by a personal connection to values or experience. To become a good storyteller in the nonprofit world, you must find the connection that will motivate the giver.

Here are five easy ways to help outline your story and better connect to your audience:

  1. Who is the subject of this story? When you are raising money, do you want the giver to think of children? Is your charity geared toward women? Who is a real success story for your organization? Choose someone who exemplifies the mission of your nonprofit with tangible results and make them the go-to example of why you are doing what you do.
  2. Highlight the need. Make it clear to where donations will go. Just as a consumer wants value in a product, a donor wants to trust where their donations are headed. You are selling a need, so that need has to be front and center. What assistance did they seek that your nonprofit was able to provide?
  3. Bring on the feels. It sounds like a given, but make sure you don’t get so lost in the details that your story doesn’t connect with your audience on an emotional level.
  4. Give your audience something to do. This bears repeating. Give your audience something to do, always. Telling your story is important, but then what? Would you like your audience to donate? Volunteer? Become an advocate? Think ahead of time about what your call to action will be.
  5. Consider the medium. Where are you telling your story? Whether you tell it via email, social media, or advertisements, you still must clearly communicate your mission throughout.

Finally, just as in any good marketing campaign, consider how to measure the impact of your storytelling. As management expert Peter Drucker once put it, “to track your storytelling success, you need to invest in measuring the impact and results.”

One of the easiest ways to get an initial grasp on how well your storytelling efforts are doing is to pay attention to patterns:

Monitor your website analytics and see which channels are driving the most traffic and initiating the most donations.

What details of your story were shared the most via social media or clicked through via email campaigns?

Has any part of your story gone completely overlooked?

A/B-test your email messages and landing pages for conversions. Data is always the strongest tool in creating an informed strategy.

Remember, there’s no one right story; you may have many the speak to different audiences at different times. Your organization touches lives in countless ways.

Continue to ask, “Why?” and you’ll always discover effective stories to share—and, in turn, inspire people to give to your cause.

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