Why Your Nonprofit’s Stories Aren’t Working

Storytelling is all the rage right now.

Not the storytelling you do around the fire pit on the camping trip, but the storytelling that every marketing blog or consultant encourages every business to engage in.

As you know, your nonprofit is a business. And you have a marketing department and a sales department. You might call them different things, but you do.

You Tell Stories All the Time

The reason your marketing department or donor development efforts struggle aren’t because you’re not telling stories. Most nonprofit websites have plenty of pictures and anecdotes of what the nonprofit is doing to achieve its results.

You’re just telling the wrong stories.

More accurately, your stories have the wrong protagonists.

You are the star of your stories. And that won’t work.

Who is the hero of your nonprofit's stories?

Who is the hero of your nonprofit’s stories? Photo Credit: Lotus Carroll via Compfight cc

Make Me the Hero

It’s like going to a party and being stuck in a conversation with someone who incessantly regales you with her feats of high school, college, post-collegiate, and current career greatness. We’re thinking, “Yes, you are an impressive human being, but enough already.”

The magic of storytelling in business is not that people love to hear what you are doing.

The magic comes when the hearer is transported from being a bystander to being a participant – the hero even.

Your donors don’t want to be ancillary to your efforts to change the world. They don’t want to just hear about worldchangers. They want to be worldchangers.

One of the biggest reasons people become involved in nonprofit work by volunteering or donating is because it’s an opportunity, away from the normal day-to-day responsibilities, to push back whatever darkness they can push back alongside an organization that cares as much as they do. They want you to tap into that common ground.

How can you make your donors the heroes of your stories?

Can it go beyond, “Your dollars went to build this school to help this sweet 7-year-old”?

Here are a few suggestions for finding ways to make your donors the heroes of your stories:
  1. Prospect better: Find the people whose personal stories already dovetail with your organization. We in sales call this target or niche marketing. If you’re an after school program, can you find individuals whose lives were changed because of after school programming? Find the people who have walked the path that your clients will walk.
  2. Listen to stories: Engage your donors and potential donors. Ask their stories. Find out who they are, where they come from.
  3. Have your donors tell their stories: Sometimes the best way other potential donors or volunteers can view themselves as the hero is by hearing current donors and volunteers tell their personal, boots on the ground experiences.
  4. Think like a donor: Avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’ – that problem where you assume all your potential stakeholders know as much about what you do as you know about what you do. They don’t. Try super hard to put yourself in the position of a potential donor. Listen and read all of your messaging through that perspective.

I’m not in your business directly, but I think some of these ideas are universal, whether you sell insurance or cars or whether you developing revenue streams for a nonprofit that’s building wells in Africa or arts programs in inner city Chicago.

Let me know what is working for you in this whole storytelling arena.

Leave a comment about how you use stories to build your nonprofit’s donor and volunteer base. How do you make your donors or volunteers the heroes of your stories? 


  1. Brett,

    This is outstanding advice for non-profits or any business trying to tell their story. Very well done indeed.

    Thanks for an outstanding post and being a leader in content marketing for insurance agents. They could all learn a bunch from what you are doing.

Speak Your Mind