Reading time: 22 minutes

The perfect nonprofit storytelling approach to create effective messaging that drives action

Published: Mar 26, 2020

We are 22 times more likely to remember a fact that is wrapped in a story.

Jerome Burner, Cognitive Psychologist

I bet you use a lot of statistics to enlighten people about your cause in your messaging.

While that is an excellent practice, you should know that the information you convey typically doesn’t stick with the audience.

Unfortunately, this is a basic characteristic of us humans. We respond better to stories than factual data.

While this may seem like a problem, it is also a solution in itself. That is you can use stories to capture and retain their attention.

In this article, we will go about understanding how to use a nonprofit storytelling approach to effectively deliver your message.

Why is storytelling better? 

“People talk in stories, so must we!”

Lake Sullivan, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads

While the source of this advice may suggest that it’s only valid for advertising, the truth is that it holds across industries.

Storytelling for campaigns has several benefits, especially for nonprofits, since they are so deeply involved with people.

A few of the primary benefits of nonprofit storytelling are:

Easy to remember 

A marketing professor at Stanford, Jennifer Aaker, asked her students to give a 1-minute pitch. Just 1-in-10 of them told a story in their pitch while the rest used facts and figures. 

While just 5% of the students recalled the statistics, 63% of them remembered the story. 

We, humans, are hardwired to respond to stories. Telling a story helps ensure that people remember what your organization does and what it’s fighting for. 

Establish an emotional connect

A story engages multiple parts of the human brain. The first of course is the language processing part. But here is the kicker – researchers in Spain have found that it also stimulates other areas used when experiencing the events of the story.

Say you depict your story with images of stray puppies struggling to survive. The story would also activate the left prefrontal cortex that drives sadness. Just like the image below does:

Stray dogs
Photo by Evan Clark

Simply telling a story and engaging a significant part of the brain is enough to plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the audience. 

By evoking these emotions in your audience, you form an emotional connection with them. This, in turn, leads them to be more deeply invested in your cause and organization. 

Drive desired action

Apart from deeply engaging your audience, this emotional connection can also move people to take action.

Research shows that people are driven by emotions, consciously, or subconsciously. This fact is especially true when they make spending decisions.

Hence, by merely telling a heartfelt story, you can drive people to donate for your cause. 

A great example of nonprofit storytelling driving action is Greta Thunberg. Remember how the story of this Swedish girl pushed the fight against climate change?

Part of the reason it gained such a huge following was that people could relate to Greta’s story and were hence inspired by it.

Great Thunberg Story
Source: BBC News

However, while most organizations realize these benefits, they find it quite tricky to implement this in their communication. 

If you’re here, chances are you’re facing similar challenges too. 

Let me assure you, this setback doesn’t stem from the lack of stories. The root cause is just the lack of using the right formula to craft your story. Here is where the “story arc” comes in. 

Let’s take a look at how the story arc can support the storytelling approach for nonprofit communication.

What is a Story Arc?

A story arc is a tool that helps people create or map out a story by moving a character (or situation) from one state to another.

The most common form of this transformation is when a character goes from a situation of weakness to one of strength.

If you go over some of your favorite stories,  you will notice a lot of similarities in the narrative. 

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Joseph Campbell

That is just the story arc being used to narrate events. A story arc contains five key elements that we can represent as the following diagram:

Story Arc Diagram

Smoothly taking your audience across each stage and evoking the right emotions from them, is what successful storytelling is all about. 

Nonprofit storytelling example

Feeding America beautifully applies the story arc to create compelling narratives that drive action. 

Here’s how they use video storytelling to depict the story of a hero named Lamont and his journey through hunger:

Notice the protagonist they have chosen for this particular story. Lamont is a relatable character with whom the audience can readily empathize. 

As a nonprofit, there is no denying the fact that you’ll have a plethora of inspiring stories. These could include stories about the volunteers, major donors, and, most importantly, the people who have benefited from your efforts.

The first step in nonprofit storytelling is to pick the right story you want to narrate- with a hero your audience can relate to.

Breaking down the messaging into the Story Arc

Once you know what story to tell, it’s time to focus on how to tell the story. Let’s break down the video to see how the story follows the story arc.

1. Exposition or Stasis

The exposition or stasis of the story occurs in the beginning. It is where you lay the groundwork for the viewers/readers.

Primarily, this element of the story includes answers to questions like:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What do they do?
  • What is happening?
  • What defines the character? Etc.

The objective of this element is to give the reader/viewer an introduction and help them settle into the story before things pick up. 

The exposition in Lamont’s story
Time: 00:00 – 00:35

If you take a look at this part of the story, you get to know the following things about Lamont:

  • An experience that touched him and his take on it
  • What is his background?
  • The fact that he has a family now
  • A deep desire of the hero
  • What does he do for a living?
Nonprofit Storytelling - Lamont Exposition
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

All of this information collectively helps establish an emotional connection between the hero and the viewers, which is extremely crucial.

This connection ensures that the audience connects to the hero’s emotions during every point of the journey, ultimately triggering these emotions and encouraging them to take action. 

2. Rising Action

The rising action happens right after the stage has been set for the audience. This phase of the arc begins to move the story forward. 

The rising action stage is typically characterized by conflicts or challenges that the hero has to overcome. 

You can break down the rising action stage further into four elements:  

  1. Trigger – This is usually the event that sets the challenges/conflicts into motion. 
  2. Quest – This is the part that shows how the hero (and other characters) react to the trigger 
  3. Surprise – This generally includes any major twist or unexpected event that may occur during the hero’s quest. 
  4. Critical choice – This is where the hero (and the characters) make a decision that transitions them from the quest to the climax.

Although it is good to have all these four elements in the rising action stage, it is not entirely mandatory. 

As a nonprofit, you may choose not to include twists or turns in your story and keep it relatively simple with the trigger and the quest. 

The rising action in Lamont’s story
Time: 00:36 – 01:11

Lamont’s story moves forward based on the following set of events:

  • Trigger – He loses his job due to an unfortunate accident
  • Quest – He struggles with bills and prioritizing food, among other necessities. He and his wife come to terms with the fact that they are in trouble and need assistance
Nonprofit storytelling - Lamont Rising Action
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

During this stage of the story, Lamont experiences extreme challenges that he has to overcome along with his family. 

Psychologists agree that six core emotions compel action when triggered. These are: 

  • Happiness 
  • Surprise
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Fear

This part of the journey triggers intense feelings of sadness, seeing someone struggle like that.

Plus, it also induces a little fear since the circumstance is quite common, and anyone could find themselves in it.  

3. Climax

The climax of any story is the point where the viewer is most engaged. The actions of the hero and the characters have led up to this point. 

The climax in the story arc typically comprises of

  • The hero overcoming the final and most important challenge
  • The hero and other characters achieving their goal
  • The characters find their calling/or see themselves improved by the quest

The climax of a story generally should be crafted to instill happiness among the audience.

The climax in Lamont’s story 
Time: 01:10 – 01:31

If you take a look at the climax of Lamont’s story, here are a few things we see have been accomplished:

  • The hero (Lamont) was able to get through the tough times that came upon him
  • He found his calling as the Director of the food pantry (the place where he got assistance from) where he gets to help other families

The happy ending (with all the smiling faces) induce similar feelings among the viewers. 

Nonprofit storytelling - Lamont falling action
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

With this climax, Feeding America also subtly showcases the impact it has on the lives of people like Lamont, which should also be an essential part of your story. 

By showcasing the impact, your story also assures donors that their gifts would make a massive difference in someone’s life.

4. Falling Action

The falling action phase comes right after the climax when the main challenge/problem of the story is resolved.

This stage is when the audience, elated by the climax, is carefully deescalated from the peak. 

Generally, there is a sense of self-realization during this phase of the story.

The falling action in Lamont’s story 
Time: 01:31 – 01:38

The falling action in Lamont’s story, though quite short, is potent.

In this stage of the story, he points out the fact that anyone could come across such difficult circumstances. This fact, in turn, induces a slight feeling of fear again among the audience.

However, the pleasant background visuals (of Lamont happily playing with his daughter) also assures them that they will receive help in their time of need.

Nonprofit storytelling - Lamont climax
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

From this stage of your story, you transition into the final part where you will make the ask to take action.

5. Resolution

The resolution is when you bring the story to a halt. It is when you tie up any loose ends and leave your audience with a full heart.

While making a story for your cause, you may not have any loose ends to tie up. However, this stage of nonprofit storytelling is extremely crucial.

This phase is when you make the ask/appeal to the audience to take action. This action could be anything ranging from signing a petition to donating or even volunteering.

Technically, this would also be a perfect point to showcase your brand because that’s essential too. 

The resolution in Lamont’s story 
Time: 01:38 – 01:46

As is seen in the video, Feeding America smoothly transitions into making the ask right after the climax. 

They make the ask with the statement, “Help us feed more people like Lamont.” 

Feeding America Ask
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

If you notice, they don’t make a generic ask like “Donate today” instead, they use the hero’s name. 

The reason is that through the story, the audience forms a strong connection with the hero; they picture themselves in his shoes. They also associate him with the sadness and happiness triggered during the story. 

Since these emotions are what inspire action, using his name to make the ask feels personalized and hence more likely to convert. 

The story closes with the Feeding America logo, thereby retaining the name in the audience’s memory by being associated with a heartfelt account. 

Feeding America logo
Source: Real Life Hunger Stories – Lamont

How does the story convey Feeding America’s message

Using a nonprofit storytelling approach helps deliver the message effectively. However, it’s important to note that this messaging should generally apply to all stakeholders. 

The message must focus on your organization and answer five key questions, as is done very clearly through Lamont’s story:

1. Who does your organization serve? 

Right at the beginning of the video, you get a brief about how the organization serves families struggling with putting food on their tables. 

Highlighting the “who” in your messaging is crucial be more appealing to your target audience (both donors and volunteers).

The target audience of this story is primarily Gen X and Gen Y demographic, people with families who can closely relate to the hero.

2. What does your organization do for these people?

Feeding America provides food and groceries to families through food banks, pantries, and other community-based organizations. 

The video does a great job of depicting this with multiple shots of Lamont collecting food items in a trolley for an unprivileged man.

Understanding the “what” is important for stakeholders to take action (whether that be volunteering or donating).

People are want to help. But they are not always aware of how they can. Explaining what your organization does gives them that clarity.

3. Why do you do what you do?

Feeding America highlights one aspect of why they work to provide food in this story. They wish to help underprivileged but hardworking families end at least one of their struggles, as is clear from Lamont’s narrative.

The reason you need to talk about why you do what you do is to bring a serious issue to people’s attention.

Most of the time, people aren’t aware of the issues/challenges others around them are facing. However, shedding light on that information will help you gather the support you need.

4. Where is your impact focused on?

Although it is quite subtle, this story does depict that Feeding America works only in the United States so far. 

Giving your audience an idea of the geographies you serve reinforces the context of your cause. The geography usually adds to the empathy people have thereby giving them all the more reason to take action.

5. What’s the intended result of your actions?

To end hunger in the United States and ensure that every man, woman, and child has access to proper nutrition so that they can focus on improving their lives (and that of others, as shown in Lamont’s journey).

Similar to Lamont’s story, the audience of your story too should be able to take away the objective of your actions (or campaign).

Remember, people will only bet on you (and your fight) if they believe that your actions can genuinely help overcome the problem.


Nonprofit storytelling attracts and engages audiences more deeply. It gets supporters to become more invested in your cause than a straightforward mission statement.

Telling a story is all about triggering the right emotions. It is these emotions that encourage action. 

As a nonprofit, you have no shortage of stories to tell. Just ensure that you communicate those stories effectively. 

You can choose to tell stories through written words, photos, or videos, or even a combination of all the above.

Regardless of which medium you choose, following the story arc will help you drive the results you need.

As Amy Eisenstein puts it,

Storytelling has always been key to fundraising success. You need to bring your donor on a journey with you.

Amy Eisenstein, Fundraising speaker, author, and trainer
Your subscription could not be added. Please try again.
You're now a CallHub Insider.

Become a CallHub Insider

Join our community of insiders for a front-row seat to invaluable resources! Get updates on our latest blogs, webinars, and insider tips delivered directly to your inbox.