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September 20, 2021
Nonprofits Must Tell Their Story if They Want to Thrive
By Peter Lowy

Peter Lowy
Peter Lowy
Nonprofits typically need to innovate— by adjusting budgets, amending programs, experimenting with new fundraising approaches—but if they want to thrive, not merely survive, they need to tell their story effectively.

Regardless of their size, nonprofits across all sectors need to explain themselves continuously #147; to funding sources, volunteers, even board members, as well as to their members, audiences, or clients, depending on whom they serve.

When reaching out, it’s important to remember that nearly everyone is under stress these days. That means the people you need to reach are likely not thinking about you first thing in the morning. Your goal is to keep your organization in front of them and explain how it best fulfills the mission your supporters believe in.

Before you attempt to tell your story, make sure everyone on your team is on the same page. Ask key groups, such as staff, volunteers, and board members, to complete the following statements on their own:
  • We succeed when we...
  • The most important thing we need to do in the next 12 to 18 months is...
  • Our top three competitors are...
  • The biggest threat to us is...
  • If our organization were an animal, it would be...
Then share the answers. The point is for everyone to understand how his or her answers diverge from others in the group. The last statement, rather than being fanciful, should provoke discussion on how the organization currently acts and how it ought to act. A mother hen, for example, is caring and nurturing while an elephant is wise but generally slow. The goal: to reach agreement on a plot line for your organization’s story.

Story telling is at the heart of the way we communicate. It’s the way we pass on traditions which, in their essence, embody and teach survival skills. Organizations that identify their essential story, and then tell it well, tend to be the most enduring. Consider what makes good story telling.

Stories create order. Effective stories give shape to what often are disparate events. They make order out of chaos. Connecting the dots lets organizations define the market they want to serve, which is another way of saying that stories help shape strategy.

Good stories use plot effectively. Whether it’s hunter stalking prey, David defeating Goliath, or boy or girl seeking a mate, a good plot line is the essential element of a good story. Organizations persuade more successfully by telling stories that evoke a classic plot line.

Effective stories engage. Regardless of story type—thriller, romance, history, or biography—a good story keeps the audience wanting more. When your audience knows that whatever you convey will be clear and provide value, they’ll be ready to listen again.

Memorable stories deliver a message. In the world of literature, classics are stories that endure because they have a potent message. Nonprofits that transmit a consistent, easily understood message over time persist in the minds of their key audiences. This is what branding seeks to achieve.

The best stories get repeated. That’s because they create order out of chaos, engage the reader or listener, and use plot to deliver a memorable message. It’s why we all know the story—and message—of organizations as diverse as the Red Cross and Amnesty International.

Today’s commercial and nonprofit organizations in many ways assume the place formerly held by the clan or tribe. They create their own community, values, and traditions. They all have a story, and they must tell it to carry on.

Peter Lowy is publisher of massnonprofit news. Email to or call 617-734-9980.
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