Storytelling With An *

Communicators and Marketers Can Leverage Storytelling in Nonprofits Even When Limited by Caveats, Legal Considerations and Organizational Culture

by Thomas Cieslak

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.

A Special Forces soldier assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) clears his mask after conducting an emergency descent at Eglin Air Force Base’s East Gate Pool Jan. 20 while participating in a scuba recertification training session. The procedures required one soldier to aid the other by providing the distressed soldier his oxygen supply while swimming together. The training refreshed the Green Berets' skills at underwater operations while preparing them for future missions. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

A Special Forces soldier assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) clears his mask after conducting an emergency descent at Eglin Air Force Base’s East Gate Pool Jan. 20 while participating in a scuba recertification training session. The procedures required one soldier to aid the other by providing the distressed soldier his oxygen supply while swimming together. The training refreshed the Green Berets’ skills at underwater operations while preparing them for future missions. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications studied nonprofit storytelling, finding 54% of content published by the organizations to qualify as stories.[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]  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. [4]

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.[5]  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.

A Green Beret assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) records a 9 Line Medical Evacuation Request for a simulated casualty Feb. 20 on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. The mission required the Special Forces soldiers to assault a mock drug-cartel outpost and document sensitive materials found inside. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

A Green Beret assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) records a 9 Line Medical Evacuation Request for a simulated casualty Feb. 20 on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. The mission required the Special Forces soldiers to assault a mock drug-cartel outpost and document sensitive materials found inside. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

Build the bridge to staff members.

A Green Beret assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) uses a power saw to cut through locks securing a door during a training mission held Feb. 20 on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. The mission required a team of Special Forces soldiers to assault a mock drug-cartel outpost and document sensitive materials found inside. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

A Green Beret assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) uses a power saw to cut through locks securing a door during a training mission held Feb. 20 on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. The mission required a team of Special Forces soldiers to assault a mock drug-cartel outpost and document sensitive materials found inside. Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak

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.[6]

Go Visual.

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.[7]

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.

[1] Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communications, “Stories Worth Telling” Infographic, accessed September 15, 2016,

[2] Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communications, “Stories Worth Telling” Infographic, accessed September 15, 2016,

[3] “Motorcycle group, VFW donate to cancer center,” WTOV, September 2, 2016,

[4] Aileen Lee, “Social Proof Is the New Marketing,” Tech, November 27, 2011, accessed September 15, 2016,

[5] Rebecca David, “Salvation Army Employee Overcomes Homelessness, Drug Addiction to Help Others,” WJON, September 2, 2016,

[6] Maj. Thomas Cieslak, “Green Beret Returns to Full Duty After Losing Arm in Afghanistan,” Fox News Insider, April 22, 2016, accessed September 15, 2016,

[7] Capt. Thomas Cieslak “Special Forces Soldiers Assault Mock Outpost, Conduct Sensitive Site Exploitation,”, February 20, 2015, accessed

The Communications Crossover: Social Impact Organizations Increasingly Integrate Communications and Development

by Corey Goldstone

Until very recently, the communications and development teams sat on opposite sides of the office and had little reason to talk with each other. This arrangement – in which the two departments of nonprofits and socially responsible businesses operated in a silo, often lead to communications professionals being left out of planning meetings about business strategy and fundraising. Since these two functions are indispensible elements for any nonprofit, it made communications professionals, well, a bit more dispensable. But thanks to the evolution and adaptation of some clever communications professionals, this arrangement has merged and improved.

Lean nonprofits like Share Our Strength are a good example of how social impact can be used as a fundraising tool to expand the scope of its impact. This summer in my Cause Consulting class, we had a guest visitor named Clay Dunn, who serves as Chief Communications Officer for Share Our Strength and joined the organization with others to launch the ‘No Kid Hungry’ campaign. Their model, in which they use storytelling to both humanize and localize the impact that the organization is having, has worked allowed it to have a greater impact. It expanded from a $12 million annual budget in 2010 to more than $50 million in annual revenues in 2016, increasing its organizational capacity across the states and allowing it to hire new people.

Share Our Strength defines the problem in more relatable terms. It speaks of the need in a simple, “1 in 5 kids in America struggle with hunger,” versus the harder to grasp “16 million children in America struggle with hunger.” In communicating the power of a donation, Share Our Strength uses an equivalency based on its work around the country: “just $1 can provide a child with up to 10 healthy meals.”

Many nonprofits have been slow to adopt search engine marketing because they don’t understand it well enough to justify the expense to their board. Share Our Strength uses paid search to push the No Kid Hungry campaign to the top of many people’s Google browsers, encouraging people to be a part of the solution. After viewing the ad, they can either ‘Join the Hunger Core’ or make a one-time donation.  Their smartly designed ad loudly displays an amazing statistic that everyone can understand: 1 in 5 U.S. children struggles with hunger. Nonprofits that have embraced Google Adwords are more likely to be satisfied with the use of their communications budget, since every dollar spent means that someone has looked at your content, decided they were interested and clicked through to your website.

nkhOn the ‘Our Stories’ section of the website is a short but powerfully aspirational video about ending childhood hunger in America. Nonprofits tend to want to cram everything they do into videos that are 10+ minutes, but savvy communications directors will resist this temptation. Also, rather than portraying childhood hunger as an impossible challenge to overcome, the upbeat music, positive tone of the narration and images of smiling, active children makes the viewer feel empowered that they are capable of making a difference. Above the video link is the line, ‘Together we’re feeding the future,” which gives visitors a sense that tackling this problem is a team effort. There are stories throughout the website of children who have benefitted from having breakfast in the classroom, on the sports fields and beyond.  The mission is clear – to end childhood hunger. The benefit of the organization’s efforts is also clear – the 16 million American children that struggle to find food.

But ultimately, if a communications pro wants to get a seat at the table and eventually hire new people, they will have to peg their efforts to revenue for their organization. That is where the email list comes in. As a communications or marketing professional, you want to bring as many supporters into the funnel of support as possible. So if they believe in the mission, you want to give them content to read and excite them about the important work you are doing. But that is not enough.

Content is king. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to get buy in for these types of organizations.

There is an entire blog-style section of the ‘No Kid Hungry’ campaign. According to research by the Georgetown Center for Social Impact Communication, 90% of stories had a clear hero. This website is no different, and has heroes everywhere you look. An example is the school administrators that have gone above and beyond, coming in early to feed hungry children before school. The emotion-driven appeal is strong and effectively delivered throughout the website.

Getting supporters to subscribe to the email list is an essential crossover tactic that communications professionals use to stake out their ground in the fundraising operation of their organizations. The visible email opt-ins are easy to see on the Share Our Strength ‘Our Stories’ page, where they don’t distract from the quality content, but are easily visible and visually appealing in a way that is consistent with their branding scheme.

For organizations like Share Our Strength, email is their bread and butter. It should be central to the development strategy of almost any organization, but it is especially crucial for a nonprofit that wants to inform supporters about its recent success stories, the immediate need it serves, the impact that supporters are having and how to take action. Email gives organizations the (seemingly) personal touch that a website never could.

Emails or websites can be a good place for the description of the organization’s offer. A short, specific description of what the organization is asking of its target audience and what the audience will get in return must be executed tactfully. It doesn’t have to be a tangible return item, but it can be a feeling or a community to join. And of course, there must be a strong, timely call to action. Communications professionals are uniquely qualified to write this type of material, and it can have a major financial impact on the organization when done effectively.

The job that Clay Dunn has done at Share Our Strength has put him in position to expand his team and has allowed the communications team a seat at the table in meetings where they may have previously been an afterthought. Tying an organization’s fundraising operation with effective content creation, email marketing campaigns and seamless social integration has helped communications professionals reimagine what is possible in the field of social impact communications.

How to Write a Successful Non-Profit Proposal

by Veronica Hunt

There is no ultimate recipe of success when it comes to grant writing. It is a rare case when you apply for only one grant and receive it like in a fairy tale. More often than not, the first try ends up in frustration. You probably won’t get it the very first time you try. It takes time to learn, revise, create new proposals, and finally compose a really good one.

There are more than a million of registered non-profits in the USA. And all of them are gunning for the same money. And, of course, corporations cannot afford to gift money to each one of them. Well, the truth is that there is a lot of fish in the sea, and there is still enough grant money to get by those who are willing to go after it.

The steps below will help you write a winning grant proposal with less effort and frustration. Use them as your guide and good luck!

Step#1: Find the best grant for you

If you have no idea where to start and how to find a grant – search online for the local foundations in your field or go to the library. Yes, in your local library there are usually people with grant finding experience in staff that can help you with your research process. Be nice to them and chances are that they will provide you with what you want.

Do not waste your time on corporations that are not related to your own niche. Focus on those who have similar goals.

Step#2: Do your research just like with your school papers

Usually, corporations have guidelines for grant proposal writing. If you have already chosen a good one, read the guidelines attentively and find out about the basics like when the proposal is due, financial limitations, and don’t forget to find out whether a detailed LOI (“Letter of Intent”) is required (we’ll talk about this one later). Thereafter you are highly recommended to visit their corporate website and take a close look at the other organizations they have previously funded. It is even better for you to Google these organizations and read the feedback left by the previous grantees. Be sure to find some samples of nicely-composed grants online. This website will provide you with some good examples.

Step #3: Have a clear plan

Meet your team members and subdivide the work among them. As mentioned above, some grantors require a LOI, which is a small proposal (one or two pages long) that summarizes your main ideas and goals. This document should provide a quick and clear insight about your organization, plans, and the ways the donors can benefit from supporting you. This one is a perfect way for both, you and the funding corporation, to get to know whether you can successfully cooperate. Your grantors can learn whether your ideas are a good fit without reading those endless proposals, and you have a chance to explain everything briefly, without a necessity to write tons of pages. The scheme is simple – you provide your LOI, and a funding corporation recognizes your effort and requests a complete proposal.

Step #4: LOI writing

Despite the fact that your LOI should be concise, it still needs to be eye-catching. If the funding organization has a template on their website – follow it. If not – follow this sample and make sure to include these points:

  • First paragraph that summarizes your request. From the very beginning, you should explain what you offer, how much money you need and for what reason.
  • Needs. Include the needs your project is addressing.
  • Program model. How are you going to address the needs?
  • Final goals. Include measurable outcomes you are trying to achieve. We know that you are not a psychic, but be as specific as possible!
  • Budget. How much money do you need in total?
  • Time. When will you start the project, what obstacles are the most likely, and what will you do to prevent them?
  • Partners (optional). If you have any – highlight their roles.
  • General organizational background. Here you are welcome to say a couple of words about your organization, a brief history or main mission would suffice.
  • Contact information. Don’t forget to include your name, phone, email, and website.

Yes, you have to try hard and squeeze all of this into one or two pages. After your LOI is finalized, submit it, and hope for the best.

Step #5: Write a full version of a proposal

Yes, we believe that your awesome LOI will be accepted and you should prepare to write a complete proposal. Gather your team, consult with them, sit down and start composing a full version. This one should be 5-10 pages long and cover all the issues you have mentioned in your LOI just in more detail.

If you shudder at the memories of when you had to write those boring papers at college, grant writing is not like that at all. Grant writing is great fun! And you are free to copy and paste, take information from your previous proposals, and stuff! Moreover, unlike your academic papers, grant writing doesn’t require any highbrow language. All you have to do is to answer all the questions and include all the details. Add some research data, statistics, or citations, if needed. Keep it mind, citations and statistics which refer to the current research can work like magic and make your proposal look awesome.

Step #6: Meet the deadline

Do not wait until the last minute with your submission. Some funding corporations are strict enough to reject your request if you miss the deadline by ten seconds. Give yourself time for revisions, editing, and for technical surprises (like computer freezing, loss of Internet connection, or something else).

This way you write a proposal for your organization. Hopefully, you will get the grant to fulfill your ideas. If not, take a day off to have some rest and watch your favorite comic show to cheer up. Then start at Step #1 again. Good luck!


Practitioner Profile: Liz Payne, Communications Director, U.S. House of Representatives

liz-payneLiz Payne is the Communications Director in the Office of U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. 

CSIC: Thanks for sitting down to talk to us, Liz. First – please describe your career path and your current position.

LP: After graduating Gettysburg College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Management and a minor in Writing, I received a Master’s degree from American University’s School of Communication in Public Communication. From 2012-2014, I worked as an Assistant Account Executive on Waggener Edstrom’s Public Affairs and Social Innovation teams. I left the private sector and began work on Capitol Hill as a Staff/Press Assistant for Congressman Markwayne Mullin (OK-02) in April 2014. I had the opportunity to transition to policy work in December 2014. As a Legislative Assistant, I took on a policy portfolio that included education, housing, social security, and health care policy, and I staffed Congressman Mullin on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. In April 2015, I took over as Communications Director for Congressman Mullin, and retained the dual role of Legislative Assistant and Communications Director until I accepted the position of Communications Director in Congressman Scott Tipton’s (CO-03) office in June 2016. I now direct all external communications for Mr. Tipton.

CSIC: Our students are all at the graduate level, working on master’s degrees in communications, marketing and journalism. What is your best piece of career advice for them?

LP: Be open to opportunities that may not precisely align with the career plan you have set for yourself. And, don’t be afraid to change course. It’s never too late to try something new.

 CSIC: Great tip! What career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

LP: Social media was a big priority for Congressman Mullin, and when I took over as Communications Director, my goal was to grow his social media following by at least 15 percent over the next four months. Using the knowledge I had gained working for clients in the private sector, I developed and implemented a combined paid and organic growth strategy and grew the Congressman’s social media following by 50 percent in the first four months and nearly 100 percent over the entire year. I am still very proud of that accomplishment.

CSIC: That’s an incredible success. What can someone do early in his/her social impact career to secure a position similar to yours?

LP: Follow federal policy, build your network on Capitol Hill, and take any opportunity that comes your way. Getting your foot in the door on Capitol Hill is really difficult. Sometimes it requires starting at the bottom – that’s what I did. I worked hard, showed my boss what I was capable of, and then I was able to move up quickly.

CSIC: What skills are necessary to work in communications on the Hill?

LP: First and foremost, attention to detail. Also, the capacity to understand complex policies and boil them down into concise talking points, the capability to write content on very tight deadlines, good judgement when talking to reporters, and the ability to remove yourself from Washington, DC, and focus on the issues that are important to constituents in your boss’s district.

CSIC: What is your go to source to learn about communication trends?

LP: These days I pay close attention to Congressional offices that are doing a good job of communicating with constituents through traditional and social media and other outreach efforts. I use the communicators in these offices as resources to find out how we may be underutilizing a communications channel or how we could do outreach differently. Right now, I’m also finding that LinkedIn provides a good platform for keeping up with communications trends. Most of my connections are in the communications field and will regularly share helpful articles.

CSIC: Do you have any tips for our students about getting a job on the Hill?

LP: Find out if there is anyone you know who works on the Hill. Ask them if they have time to grab coffee during a week when Congress is on recess, and take them up on any offer to connect you with other Hill staffers. Build your network and make it known that you are looking for a job. Most of the time, offices try to hire through referrals before posting job openings publicly. Maintain your relationships with people who have helped you in the past.

CSIC: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us! 

3 Simple Steps for Bringing a CSR Program to the U.S. Hispanic Audience

by Vincent Cuellar

Around October and November, lots of communications professionals get excited about the new initiatives their team is launching for the following year. Sometimes it’s a new website or product, or a fundraising campaign. Then there is that one voice in the room that brings up “the Hispanic market” as a possibility. She’s read a recent news story about their population of 55 million in the US, or their $1.3 trillion in spending power, which both in turn, receive a few head nods. But those head nods frequently don’t translate into budget and resources, which eventually becomes a missed opportunity for progress. Results can be attained much more simply than you thought. Do you have educational resources, like a blog or e-book, for free on your website? Translate it. Are you planning a survey to create some awareness around your next event? Include a Hispanic oversample. As Pew Research has pointed out, in 2016 the largest minority group is plateauing from a media renaissance after “the circulation of Hispanic newspapers and magazine almost tripled from 2005 to 2013,” and for good reason – this population generally consumes local and neighborhood news at a higher rate than the general population. Here are steps you can take to begin the Latino media outreach initiative for your CSR program:

  1. Translate your Content
    • While Google has undoubtedly revolutionized the ability for one person to problem-solve many of life’s challenges, translation is not among them. Even Google’s brainy algorithms have yet to fully reach the pace of human linguistic comprehension. That’s why translation is best left to professionals, and when necessary, a professional who is specialized in your subject area. After spending resources in developing your organization’s content, it’s a 1-yard line fumble of the ball when a translation was made by a computer and left unchecked by a bilingual professional. That’s off-putting for a Spanish-dominant person to read something in their language with little effort in quality assurance. Spend the time and money to get the work translated, and focus your effort on getting the word to your target audience.
  2. Train a Spokesperson
    • Watch Univison or Telemundo as you ponder bringing this idea to life with your team. You’ll notice interviews go a little differently. The reporter will spend more time on the meet & greet. Interviews go less arguably and focus more on sharing useful information. They’re more amenable to a branded message. These subtle nuances make for a very different news experience than we’re accustomed to in the general market. Preparation with these facts in mind ahead of time is key to an authentic connection with the audience. Just make sure your spokesperson is not only fluent, but fluent enough to be comfortable with the media.
  3. Make it Educational
    • Figure out how your brand can educate Hispanics and their families. An educational angle from your brand’s core message will speak to the Hispanic media tendency to publish stories that help their community make progress towards their goals. Think along the lines of messages that inspire, empower, and educate, then pull in the media timing that brings about a reason for your news to answer the question ‘why now?’ News timeliness and a keen sense of uplifting educational news will give your organization that extra ounce of opportunity that can win you some well-placed ink.

My team at the Jelena Group has had the privilege of launching Fortune 100 foundations, we’ve created award-winning multicultural CSR campaigns and translated thousands of pages of educational government text for U.S. Hispanics. However, these accomplishments are only made possible when the desire to reach a new audience is made a reality. And more often than not, that progress hinges on a simple response to the Hispanic question, “Where do we start?”

For many, you already have what you need, you only need to take the first step.