For Nonprofits, Storytelling is Key to Standing Out

See the original article here in ANA Magazine Online

A man sits in the driver’s seat of a parked car, violently yelling into his phone. His words are angry and vitriolic. Directly behind him sits another man, equally as angry, repeating everything he says and does. When the driver slams his fist into the window, the passenger does the same.

The scene, part of the spot “Phone Call,” can be difficult to watch, and the ending is just as disturbing: As the camera pans around the car to focus on the passenger, the man is replaced by a frightened little boy listening to his father screaming at his mother over the phone and flinching when his father pounds his fists on the car. “What they see,” the ad reads, “they become.” The spot ends with a message to help stop the cycle of violence.

The ad is part of the ongoing “End the Cycle” campaign from the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, which is dedicated to helping youth affected by domestic violence and to battling the issue through education. Created by B-to-B agency gyro and launched in March, the video is accompanied by graphic print ads depicting scenes of domestic violence imprinted in the brain matter of children.

With these ads, gyro and Safe At Home Foundation tell a universal story of the long-term effects of domestic violence, which is that children are likely to internalize and replicate behaviors they see, according to Kash Sree, executive creative director at gyro New York. The graphic nature of the ads is a strategic effort to get people who may be desensitized to an issue to pay attention and ultimately take an action.

“Awareness without shock might not actually move the bar in the donation area. We can get detached from the issue because we’ve seen it so many times,” says Marco Walls, creative director at gyro, who came up with the creative direction along with Sree. “The messaging throughout the campaign is ‘learn more and donate.’ So if you’re living through this situation, there’s someone who can help you, and even if you’re not, you can actually do something to stop it.”

Moving potential donors to act is a constant challenge for nonprofit organizations that are competing for attention not just among themselves, but against big brands with large budgets. For many, storytelling can make all the difference.

“Storytelling is the essence of effective marketing, not just for nonprofits but for all brands,” says Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council. “In order to inspire action, we need to move people. It’s so important to establish a relatable and human connection, and that’s not possible without storytelling …. We need to reach [people] on an emotional level that will resonate, create empathy, and inspire them to action.”

Stories help illustrate the why, says Emily Callahan, CMO at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “They help put a face and a voice to a nonprofit mission, or a problem you’re trying to solve, or the people or cause you’re helping,” she adds.

Own Your Story

When choosing what stories to highlight, Bethany Maki, VP of nonprofit strategy at PMX Agency, suggests finding the story the organization can authentically own and combining that with an appeal strategy. “A lot of the nonprofits we work with have a lot of services they provide and a really wide scope, so narrowing in on the thing you do that other people aren’t doing lets you really own the story,” says Maki, whose agency works with organizations like the American Heart Association, Feeding America, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

To create a narrative arc, Sherman starts by asking three specific questions: why should someone care about the cause, who would be impacted by their efforts, and what barriers are standing in the way? Drawing on personal stories from organization staff can also serve as inspiration for how a story is told.

“Listen and think about how they relay their personal accounts. Where do they pause? How does it make you feel? How does it make them feel?” Sherman says. “Once you understand how one person’s story can change a mind or move a heart, work from that place of emotion and scale it for a wider audience.”

At St. Jude, tapping into the power of storytelling to engage people has been core to its marketing efforts since it was founded in 1962 by actor and entertainer Danny Thomas. “At this point, there isn’t anything that we do that doesn’t tell a story,” Callahan says. “That is a fundamental part of our story, brand, and mission. Any time we’re talking about what we do here, we put a face and voice to it.”

In building its campaigns, whether it’s the St. Jude “Thanks and Giving” campaign that runs every November and December, or an effort tied to a particular awareness month, St. Jude has a process for identifying what stories to tell and the best people to tell them.

“We work with our care teams and our doctors, nurses, and child-life specialists who work with the families and get to know them,” Callahan says. “Many of our families are here for years for their treatment. They identify families who might be good at telling their stories, have a unique story to tell, and, most importantly, a desire to tell their story.”

A team from ALSAC then works directly with the patient families to help them craft their stories and figure out the most appropriate place to tell them. As opportunities arise, they decide what family makes the most sense in each case, tailoring the story to the audience being targeted. For instance, a marketing effort tied to a sporting event may feature a patient who is an athlete, or a patient who is a musician could be the face of a music campaign.

This collection of stories is important to the storytelling process, and something that Maki recommends all nonprofits get ahead of, especially small- and medium-sized organizations. “Proactive story collection is critical — actually putting that into your annual planning,” she says. “You know you’re doing however many campaigns, you’re likely to need however many real stories, and getting those up front and earlier in the year and making those connections [is important] …. Often there are great campaign ideas but there just aren’t the assets there to support the storytelling.”

Consistency Is Crucial

Once a strategy has been established, it’s important to remain consistent in the storytelling, as those within the nonprofits are likely to tire of their messages before others do, stresses ALSAC’s Callahan. “If you look at the great iconic brands, they may update the narrative, they may update the story, they may tell a new version of the story, but there are certain key principles that are consistent over time because they are tied to core values,” she says.

Consider, for instance, the Ad Council, which has spent 75 years producing, distributing, and promoting communications programs on a number of significant public issues, including iconic campaigns such as “Wildfire Prevention,” which introduced Smokey Bear, and “Supporting Minority Education,” which featured the line “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

When partnering with nonprofit organizations, Sherman says the Ad Council signs on for a minimum of three years “because influencing attitudes and behaviors takes time.”

“At the core of every successful campaign, we see one clear, single-minded, and consistent message and a tangible call-to-action; creative that is compelling, engaging, and emotional; and a uniquely targeted approach,” Sherman says. “We find it’s important to speak directly to our audience in the languages and on the platform where they will be the most receptive to the message.”

In 2015, the organization launched the “Love Has No Labels” campaign to address bias and inclusion. The inaugural video for the campaign, for instance, featured different groups of people dancing behind an x-ray machine. On the other side, a crowd could only see skeletons. The dancers then revealed themselves as same-sex couples, interracial couples, or people from different religions, among others. The message: Love has no age, gender, disability, religion, or race.

Fast forward to this past February and a new video, “Fans of Love,” follows a similar format, this time featuring couples on a kiss cam at the NFL Pro Bowl game in Orlando. Among the couples is Jeanette McCoy, a survivor of the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, and her girlfriend. The people and setting of this spot may be different than the campaign’s first ad, but the message remains the same.

“It continues to feature a single-minded and direct call-to-action: Rethink your unconscious bias,” Sherman says. “The creative is emotional and engaging, and it always features powerful storytelling through real people.”

Demonstrate Impact

In 2016, launched “Sincerely, Us,” a campaign about Islamophobia, in the wake of the terrorist attack at England’s Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert. The organization asked its members, consisting primarily of 13- to 25-year-olds, to create beautiful, handmade Happy Ramadan cards to be delivered to every mosque in America.

“It was important for us to use storytelling, not only to talk about the importance of religious tolerance, but to explain to young people what Islam is,” says Aria Finger, CEO and chief old person at and TMI Strategy. “Most people don’t have any Muslim friends, so we had to tell that story well. More importantly, we had to tell the story after.” collected more than 41,000 cards from people around the country and followed through on its promise to deliver them to every single mosque in the country. The website features video of staff preparing packages of cards to be sent, as well as some of the notes of gratitude and pictures the organization received in response from Muslims across the country, allowing participants to see the results of their involvement.

“It was really great to close the loop and finish up the story by showing the impact it had on the people who received the cards,” Finger says.

Demonstrating the impact of a donor’s contribution is a critical part of the conversation, advises Maki. “Standing on brand strength and reputation alone doesn’t cut it as much as it used to,” she says. It’s also the way to pull the story together for an organization running a campaign like “Sincerely, Us” that doesn’t have a specific individual to front it. This challenge is particularly acute for organizations that serve broader causes, like an arts center or an environmental conservancy.

“These stories get one step removed and are harder to tell,” Maki says. “Sometimes it’s coming back to what you are doing to affect lives and sometimes it’s telling the more quantifiable story in terms of the scope of the problem instead of having to narrow it down to one person. I think where we see the bellwethers in the storytelling space are the ones who are able to tell their stories from a human perspective.”

She cautions, however, that nonprofits shouldn’t make the mistake of putting the organization’s story first, as what will attract donors is being able to make a difference in something that they care about. “The nonprofit is the conduit for the donor to get to the cause they’re interested in,” she says. “Yes, brand reputation matters, but talking less about ‘we as an organization do this’ and more about ‘your dollar helps this person or this cause’ [is important]. The secondary narrative is about the organization.”

Let Research Guide

With a myriad of channels and platforms at their disposal, nonprofit organizations face the common challenge of figuring out how to adapt their messaging to tell the strongest story. While direct mail may offer the space for in-depth stories, digital marketing has less space and time to catch the audience’s attention. Condensing stories to fit 30-second or 6-second formats means that the result can sometimes fall short. “Despite best intentions, the easiest mistake to fall into is the use of inauthentic character short-hands that rely on and perpetuate stereotypes,” Sherman says. “If your audience can’t see themselves, or a friend or colleague in the work — if it doesn’t feel like a real person out there somewhere — they’ll tune out immediately.”

Given the subject matter, there are also ethical questions to consider. “In highlighting stories of real people, how do you value one person’s life experiences over another’s?” Sherman asks. “Also, where is the line between spotlighting and exploiting? And does he or she understand all the implications of being in the public eye?” Whether looking for answers to these questions, determining where to tell a story, or how best to tell it, conducting research is key to making the right choices.

“Your stories have to be authentic,” Callahan says. “[Then] as you put context around your story, you really have to do research to understand what your audience needs and wants to hear. Often as organizations, we speak at people instead of listening to what they actually want to hear and tailoring our messages in a way that they can hear it.”

“When we’re talking about storytelling, the same rules apply for social marketing as with brand marketing,” Sherman says. “We need to be audience-first when we’re thinking about where and how to share stories. As we develop campaigns, a lot of time and effort goes into the research and strategy phases to inform our marketing and ensure we’re optimizing from platform to platform and audience to audience,” she says. “If you base your work on real insight and conduct thoughtful testing, you’ll end up with content that is authentic and motivating.”

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  • Stephan Mathys

    Thanks for this article, reminding of the incredible power of storytelling.

    I’m reminded of the advice given to fiction writers about story: “Something has to change.” A character’s mindset changes (evolves) – a society changes their norms – an impending disaster is averted through the concerted actions of like-minded community members. All of these are story, and all have that motivating power.

    Otherwise, it’s just a profile, or a vignette, and there’s no real motivation to act. If we tell of the piteous situation of abandoned dogs in the shelter, that may provoke emotion without action. However, if we highlight the original situation, then show how that CAN change with the donor’s support, there’s an immediate pull to do something. To donate; to volunteer; to sign up for a newsletter.

    Thanks again, looking forward to reading more about this topic.

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