Why Nonprofits Need to Be Storytellers

What drives people to open their wallets and send their hard-earned money to a complete stranger halfway across the globe?

It's the same thing that finds us gathered in pitch-black rooms with strangers, gobbling down popcorn in a near-trance while tears roll down our cheeks. That keeps us huddled around campfires at 3 a.m. in the freezing cold. Or leads to movements that change the world.

Humans are hardwired to find a great story irresistible; it's in our DNA. Without a doubt, stories are the most powerful tool at any nonprofit's disposal for motivating empathy and an emotional reaction. “Storify-ing” your website’s content with authentic emotion (not to be confused with the superficial or guilt-trip inducing kind) is the key to driving deeper engagement, moving people to action, and taking your organization’s cause to the next level. Here’s seven key strategies to get started:

1- Know your audience.

Before a single sentence is written, you must have an intimate understanding into who you’re writing for. If your target persona is your donor base, then your first priority is to survey and interview current donors as well as your “ideal donor.” Figure out what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. No detail is too small here; if you were dating your donor base, you’d basically want to go into full-fledged stalker mode. To tap into the exact story your target persona needs to hear, this insight is your greatest ammo.

Without understanding the greatest hopes and fears of your audience, you can’t effectively write copy that inspires them. A laser-focus on your target persona ensures you're not just putting out content for the sake of putting out content; rather, you're empowering your audience to tango with you and transform the world in the process.

2- Take a cue from Drake: Embrace emotion.

In "The Storyteller's Secret," Carmine Gallo defines storytelling as "the act of framing an idea as a narrative to inform, illuminate, and inspire." If accomplishing these goals through your website copy seems intimidating, don't fret: As a nonprofit, you have a leg-up in the “inspiration” department.

So, why do so many great causes still struggle despite this advantage? Often, they hesitate to unleash a no-holds-barred emotional punch. Facts and figures are presented to donors in a neat, shiny package. What people really need are characters, conflict (yes, this means introducing villains), and a resolution: the three non-negotiable components behind every great story. As Gallo says: "Heroes and villains are essential to any compelling narrative: use them to bridge 'what is' to 'what could be.'"

A lack of emotion is the kiss of death for nonprofit storytelling. Even science proves that emotions trump, well, science! Every. Single. Time. People don't want to be educated or preached to: they want to be seduced and invited into the resolution. The emotion in your content makes or breaks the conversation you have with your audience, and consequently your nonprofit's impact.

3- Hack neuroscience by embracing a story arc.

We can turn to neuroscience for help in telling strategic, emotion-driven stories. It all boils down to understanding a feel-good hormone called "oxytocin." Oxytocin is the chemical our brains release when we're shown kindness, and it enhances our sense of empathy, the ability to experience others' emotions as if they were our own.

Research shows that character-driven stories consistently "hack" the oxytocin levels in a reader's brain, motivating them to engage in cooperative behaviors. Like donating money to the nonprofit associated with the narrative, perhaps? You got it! It's far more effective to focus on a single character's plight than an entire cause. Tapping into the emotions of one character creates a bond with your target audience.

Not all stories are created equally, however: neuroeconomist Paul Zak found that there are two key elements of a memorable story. First, it must capture our attention, the golden Snitch for modern marketers. The key to grabbing it? Creating tension— a lot of it. Zak's research shows that the brain is highly attracted to stories that follow the narrative arc of struggle and triumph (think Rocky, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.). The more tension you create, the more attentive your reader will be...and the more they will empathize with the feelings of your character.

Zac's second finding was that successful stories "transport" the reader into the character's world. Why? Because the more your reader experiences the pain your character feels, the more they will revel in the pleasure of its resolution. Your job is to invite your audience into that resolution. Make them the hero of the story that they are now engaged in. Doing so heeds my next point...

4- Appeal to the universal need for self-esteem.

Regardless of who your ideal donor or volunteer is, I can guarantee they want to feel good about themselves. Again, it’s not totally rational to ask a person to write a check for people they don't know; everyone has more than enough bills to pay. But rational intelligence doesn’t necessarily win arguments: emotional intelligence does. And besides, feelings are facts, remember?

If I haven’t lost you yet, my point is this: every piece of content, whether it’s a whitepaper or one-paragraph email, should be written with the universal need for self-esteem in mind. This is vital because when people give to an organization, they are really expressing their own sense of self. Engage your target audience by inviting them to be part of the "happy ending." Create pride through a sense of belonging. Use language like “you” and “your” rather than “we” and “us.” Are you reflecting their values and giving them the chance to be who they aspire to be? Can they see themselves in the stories you tell?

Today’s increasingly-savvy population can sniff out insincerity a mile away. Differentiate your organization by telling authentic stories that present an irresistible choice: to play a role in changing the world. Tap into the deep fundamental need for self-esteem, and you’ll open both hearts and wallets.

5- give statistics soul.

Did your parents ever say to you, "6 million children break their spines each year jumping into shallow water"? Of course they didn't—you would have cannon-balled right in the pool, positive that your destiny was far removed from any sad statistic.

But I bet you you still remember the story of Lizzie, the little girl who lived in your town and kinda-sorta looked like you from the right angle. Lizzie had everything, a bright future, a loving home...until she dove into the shallow end and became a paraplegic, totally dependent on 24/7 caregivers to this day.

The human brain simply can't process abstract numbers and phrases. Data plays a huge role in bolstering your credibility, for sure, but it needs to be disguised with stories to unleash the real impact. The most moving nonprofit copy puts a face and a name to one of "those 6 million children." Invite us into a character’s world, and show us how we might transform it. Paint a picture that makes the impact of valued donors tangible. For instance, how many children will receive shelter or food with a $10 donation? Can you introduce multimedia components to make it even more tangible?

6- Keep it sweet and simple.

I'll follow my own rule here: Say what you need to say in the briefest manner possible with clear, concise language. The moment you ramble or use overly-complicated words, you fall off your broomstick. (For non Harry Potter fans, this is when the scarce attention of your audience slips hopelessly out of your reach.)

7- Present a strong call to action.

Perhaps you’ve embraced the strategies above, and your audience is moved to tears by your web copy. They're furiously sharing your nonprofit's story in their family group message while reaching for their wallets. Remember when we discussed how important it is to know who your audience is? Here's the second piece: it's every bit as vital to clearly communicate what you want them to do.

A clear, direct call to action is non-negotiable to your organization’s success. Does your CTA use strong verbs and embrace a sense of urgency? Is there an emotional appeal? Is it simple and direct enough for a fifth-grader to understand and take action?


When nonprofits harness the power of emotional storytelling, there’s no limits to the impact they can have. If you’d like to elevate your organization’s content strategy, feel free to drop me a line at hannah@hannahchenoweth.com. I’m always open to connecting with organizations that are passionate about making the world a better place.