Seven Storytelling Truths Among Small Nonprofits

When we began the research portion of our multiphase project on nonprofit storytelling with the Meyer Foundation last summer, there were a few things of which we were (fairly) certain.

One, storytelling was a hot topic—and not just among nonprofits. Bloggers have heralded it the “#1 Business Skill of the Next Five Years,” brands have embraced it as a way to authentically engage consumers across digital platforms, and an overwhelming amount of Internet real estate has been devoted to offering insights and tips on how and why organizations should tell their stories.

Which leads us to our second certainty: we’ve reached a point of resource overload. At last count, there were more than 140,000 books on Amazon.com on the topic; more than 9,300 Google search results devoted to nonprofit storytelling specifically, and—at peak times—upwards of 60 Tweets an hour using the hashtag #storytelling. But were any of these resources truly useful for smaller nonprofits?

And finally, we knew from our own research that storytelling is an effective way to move people to action. In a survey of digitally active supporters of causes we conducted last summer, reading a story on social media was the number one motivator of the more than 50% of respondents who made the leap from supporting a cause online to also supporting it offline.

stories worth telling-logoAnd so, with these story truths in mind, we set our to dive more deeply into the current landscape of storytelling among Meyer grantees—with the goal of uncovering more of a complete picture of the gaps between the myriad storytelling resources available and the specific barriers, challenges (and successes!) of small nonprofits. We surveyed grantees, conducted story audits of each and every grantee’s current online storytelling capabilities, and interviewed more than a dozen organizations that rated highly in our assessments. Here are seven key needs we’ve identified that are informing the future phases of our work:

1. Systems

When asked to rate their satisfaction with the quality vs. the quantity of stories produced each year, organizations reported higher satisfaction with the quality (39% vs. just 23% for quantity). A vast majority of respondents (85%) rely on program staff knowledge to collect stories, though the communications or development staff is considered in charge of storytelling as a whole. Respondents indicated that limited staff resources are among the biggest barriers in storytelling (with most having 3 or fewer staff members working on it).

This adds up to a need for a more efficient, systematic process for collecting and sharing stories—one that maximizes available staff time and handles the transfer of knowledge from program to communications/development staff more easily. And, not surprisingly, the highest performing storytellers among grantees reported having some internal systems in place to facilitate the collecting, storing, sharing and reporting of stories and successes.

2. Strategy

First, the good news: more than three quarters of respondents noted that they typically have a purpose for each story collected and shared. Now, the bad news: as we observed in our audits, those purposes are often obscured during the execution of story content and presentation. There’s a strong need for more clear audiences and calls-to-action, both in the story itself and in how it’s positioned and framed on the websites or other online channels.

3. Consistency

There’s understandably a lot of confusion today about what a story is—and what it isn’t. Brands label just about everything they share as “stories” today, and there’s not a lot of concrete guidance about what separates a true story from every other type of content out there. In our audits, we identified several key elements that a story must possess (which will be detailed in a future blog post)—and in the process, we eliminated nearly 45% of the pieces of content that were deemed “stories” by the organizations we were assessing. Clearly, there needs to be more agreement around what a story is and what it must contain. There’s nothing wrong with having testimonials, interviews, event recaps, etc.—but they’re not stories.

4. Immediacy

In analyzing the location of stories on organization’s websites, we noticed that only a third of organizations feature a story on their homepage. For the majority, readers had to click through at least one or more times to come across their first story. This is a tremendous missed opportunity.

96% of respondents reported that storytelling is an important part of their communications, and as we saw earlier this year in the Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s terrific annual Communications Trends Report, a nonprofit’s website is its most important communications channel right now. So why not put a story front and center, where it can immediately draw your supporters in and move them to action?

5. Diversity

What happens if you tell the same general story (albeit with a different “hero”) over and over again? Chances are, it will lose its effectiveness as your supporters come to expect the same narrative and cease to be surprised by how you made them feel. How do you avoid this? By diversifying the types of stories you tell.

Diversity can take many shapes, from featuring different heroes (and NOT always the organization as the hero, as more than 45% of stories we assessed did); different types of stories (founding, behind-the-scenes, on-the-ground); different formats (text, video, photos, multimedia); or by making use of different plot devices (for example, leaving it open-ended vs. resolving it).

6. Engagement

In our 2013 Digital Persuasion study, we found a large group of digital supporters who will readily share an organization’s content with their own social networks—because they’re proud to be affiliated with the organization and because they want to influence their networks to also support the cause. Yet, only 20% of the organizations we assessed give their supporters the tools to do this, by enabling “Share This” or other automatic sharing features on their stories. This is another missed opportunity. Supporters want to do more than just read or watch stories today; they want to have a way to interact, customize, and engage with the content.

7. Measurement

Finally, even among highly rated storytelling organizations, measurement of story successes is only happening in a very anecdotal way right now. If there are ways to make this process more streamlined/automated, more quantitative, and more real-time, organizations could see great changes in their internal storytelling cultures.

With these key needs in mind, we’re moving full steam ahead in developing trainings and materials in the next phases in our project! Stay tuned for recaps of the upcoming trainings and follow along as we provide answers to these questions and more.

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One thought on “Seven Storytelling Truths Among Small Nonprofits

  1. Does your program include international activities? If so, I would like to discuss the possibility of getting some of your students involved with our efforts. Our U.S. office is in McLean, VA and our programmatic office is in Guatemala.

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