Communicators and Marketers Can Leverage Storytelling in Nonprofits Even When Limited by Caveats, Legal Considerations and Organizational Culture
Storytelling’s power is widely recognized among communication and marketing professionals. A nonprofit organization adeptly wielding it communicates effectively with key publics while establishing itself as a subject-matter-expert in its field of advocacy. But what about nonprofits whose storytelling potential is seemingly limited by legal considerations, caveats or its culture?
At first glance, these establishments cannot benefit from storytelling due to pervasive attitudes or the beneficiaries they serve. Looking deeper, storytelling is possible in these environments by shifting the spotlight onto donors and staff members, investing time and effort to establish interpersonal relationships with employees and by expanding storytelling beyond words.
Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications studied nonprofit storytelling, finding 54% of content published by the organizations to qualify as stories. The study also discovered 11% of those surveyed believe the complexity of the organization’s mission is a major barrier to storytelling and a similar amount have strong concerns with privacy and confidentiality.
How does that translate into the limitation of storytelling potential?
Beneficiaries of the nonprofit might be protected with legal considerations or organization-imposed caveats. These limitations are rightfully in place, meaningful and to be fully observed by communication and marketing professionals. Leaders and employees of a nonprofit might be averse to storytelling because of personal reasons or security concerns. To be successful, communicators and marketers must acknowledge these views as valid while pursuing means to storytelling.
Legal Considerations and Caveats
A nonprofit’s storytelling can be limited due to the nature of their beneficiaries. Organizations assisting victims of sexual abuse or specializing in child advocacy have numerous legal restrictions and caveats limiting stories featuring recipients of their services.
Hand the dragon-slaying-sword to the donor.
Most donors want to be a monster-slaying hero, but often cannot because of work, family and other obligations. Making them the hero of the story, like when a motorcycle group and Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter donated to a cancer center, shifts reader focus onto the donor’s motivations for giving and the impact their funds will have towards beneficiaries. This also provides a measure of social proof, reinforcement of an observed action, to current and potential donors reading the story, possibly strengthening commitments to donate to the nonprofit. 
Bestow the superhero cape upon the staff.
Staff members and employees of a nonprofit share an affinity for the cause it champions, but their reasons for serving are most likely unique. Tapping into these stories, like that of Ricky Gustafson, a Salvation Army employee who overcame addiction to methamphetamines, offers a wellspring of material for communicators to deliver messages to key publics while highlighting top performers. From this, the nonprofit receives a twofold benefit; a captivating story featuring a member of its staff and improved morale resulting from the recognition of an individual’s accomplishments and service.
Limited by Organizational Culture and Aversion
Sometimes the culture of the nonprofit is averse to storytelling. For various reasons, leadership and senior decision makers may believe the use of narratives may hurt the organization by revealing sensitive information or proprietary secrets. Staff members and employees may not be receptive to being highlighted in print, photo or video. One or both of these factors may be present when encountering an anti-storytelling environment in a nonprofit.
Build the bridge to staff members.
Working in an organizational culture averse to storytelling requires the establishment and fostering of relationships between the communicator or marketer and employees of the nonprofit. While it requires significant investment of time and effort, these connections can provide inroads to gripping stories with exclusive availability. The relationship I developed with Sgt. 1st Class Ivan Morera, a Green Beret who lost his left hand in Afghanistan, eventually led to our partnership to tell the story of his injury, recovery and continued service in the US Army Special Forces.
If you have the knack, visual storytelling is effective means of conveying an organization’s messages to key publics. Often, leaders who do not believe the benefits of print narratives are open to visual storytelling because messaging can be precisely tuned in both the photo and caption. A photography essay featuring Green Berets from the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) clearly demonstrates the competency and lethality of SF soldiers while avoiding disclosure of any sensitive material from a community where survival depends on secrecy and discretion.
As communicators and marketers, we gain credibility by exceeding the expectations of our nonprofit client while navigating the nuances of their culture, caveats and legal considerations. Storytelling is possible in environments with such restrictions, it just requires us to have the adaptability to shift a spotlight, build a bridge or focus a camera lens.
 Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communications, “Stories Worth Telling” Infographic, accessed September 15, 2016, http://static.scs.georgetown.edu/upload/kb_file/csic-storiesworthtelling-infographic1.jpg
 Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communications, “Stories Worth Telling” Infographic, accessed September 15, 2016, http://static.scs.georgetown.edu/upload/kb_file/csic-storiesworthtelling-infographic2.jpg
 “Motorcycle group, VFW donate to cancer center,” WTOV, September 2, 2016, http://wtov9.com/news/local/motorcycle-group-vfw-donate-to-cancer-center
 Aileen Lee, “Social Proof Is the New Marketing,” Tech Crunch.com, November 27, 2011, accessed September 15, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2011/11/27/social-proof-why-people-like-to-follow-the-crowd/
 Rebecca David, “Salvation Army Employee Overcomes Homelessness, Drug Addiction to Help Others,” WJON, September 2, 2016, http://wjon.com/salvation-army-employee-overcomes-homelessness-drug-addiction-to-help-others/
 Maj. Thomas Cieslak, “Green Beret Returns to Full Duty After Losing Arm in Afghanistan,” Fox News Insider, April 22, 2016, accessed September 15, 2016, http://insider.foxnews.com/2016/04/22/green-beret-makes-return-full-service-after-arm-amputation
 Capt. Thomas Cieslak “Special Forces Soldiers Assault Mock Outpost, Conduct Sensitive Site Exploitation,” Army.mil, February 20, 2015, accessed https://www.army.mil/article/143370/Special_Forces_Soldiers_Assault_Mock_Outpost__Conduct_Sensitive_Site_Exploitation.