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When Storytelling Isn’t Enough

A lot has been written about storytelling this year – from articles calling it the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years to foundations creating tool kits and resource centers focused on nonprofit storytelling.

While telling great stories is vital to a thriving nonprofit fundraising and marketing strategy, it cannot be relied upon to convince and convert donors by itself.

Julia Campbell Julia Campbell

Compelling stories of lives changed work very well in online communications, such as social media. Stories also work exceptionally well when mobilizing urgent support for a cause and getting a message to quickly spread across online networks.

However, when dealing with major donors and grant funders, nonprofits have to also address the questions – “Do you have the data to demonstrate your impact? How will I know that this gift will be a good investment?”

Remember that no matter how awe-inspiring, a story will not:

  • Fix bad management. If the administration of your organization is under fire and receiving destructive press, simply throwing out a tear-jerking story will not work.
  • Fix a lousy program or service. If your programs are not working and you are not providing the services promised by your mission statement, using an example of the few times they did work is not sufficient.
  • Replace tried-and-true fundraising tactics. Stories should be used to augment fundraising tactics, not take their place. One-on-one meetings and phone calls, hand-written letters and personal connections all trump storytelling and social media when it comes to major gift fundraising.

Nonprofits should be interspersing stories and impact data into all of their interactions with donors.

  • Get imaginative in conveying data visually. Compassion International created an infographic showcasing their impact. Called “Child Sponsorship Works”, they provide great visuals and easy-to-digest data on their programs and services.
  • Tell a story and the showcase need you address. The United Nations Foundation shared a visual infographic that combines shocking statistics (“1.3 billion people live without electricity”) with a story of a woman living in a developing country (“She wants education for herself & her daughters”).
  • Show where the money goes. Use your annual report to both tell stories and demonstrate impact. The New York Public Library does this exceptionally well, saving costs on printing and making it easier for supporters to share the information (it’s hard to make a photocopy of a printed annual report to share with friends – but very easy to post a link on Facebook).

Stories are wonderful to start the conversation and pique a supporter’s curiosity about the great work of your organization. Follow it up with data and a strong statement of need, and the donor will be even more compelled to give and to stay loyal.

The preceding is a guest post by Julia Campbell, founder of J Campbell Social Marketing, a boutique digital marketing agency based in Beverly, MA. Julia received her degree in Journalism & Communications from Boston University and earned a Master in Public Administration from Old Dominion University as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Tidewater Community College. A Beverly native, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a mother and a social media marketing specialist, Julia helps nonprofits connect with supporters by effectively harnessing the power and potential of online marketing and social media tools. Julia’s clients include small community-based nonprofits and large universities. She also offers one-on-one coaching sessions, group seminars and college courses. Her blog was named one of the Top 150 Nonprofit Blogs in the world and she is included in the Top 40 Digital Strategists in Marketing for 2014. Julia has been featured on Maximize Social Business,, MarketWatch, Alltop, Salon, Social Media Today, Forbes and Business 2 Community.

Topics: Communications