Bring your nonprofit stories alive to enhance support, grow donations

By John Klein

Special to Philanthropy Journal

You walk into a large room, the lighting is subdued, and before you hang 20 paintings you have never seen before.  You don’t know who created them or when.  You follow the arrows to a particular work and stand in front of it.

Suddenly, music starts to play in the background.  You recognize it as a classical piece, maybe from the late 19th century.  A woman in a pleasant British accent begins to describe the work of the artist, when she created her best work, how her contemporaries influenced her and what it was like to live where she lived. And in a short time, that painting begins to come alive for you.

Many of you will recognize this as a typical experience in an art museum, accompanied by an audio guide. But what’s important is that the audio guide told a story – something that connected the artist to the viewer in an emotional and relatable way. The curators used a couple of effective devices in the audio guide – music to create a mood, a pleasant voice, and an interesting narrative about the context in which the artist created her work.

A nonprofit can tell the story about their mission and organization in the same way.  The advent of digital technology allows the smallest company to share their stories across many consumer touch points at a low cost. But digital media is just that:  a medium through which messages pass. The key is to employ effective devices that help create and organize these messages – or stories – that engages potential patrons and donors, and moves them to act on your behalf.

Let’s stay with the museum as our example. While many of them are large and complex organizations, their storytelling needs are the same as a startup and can be applied with creativity and authenticity.

Tell stories about your target audience

Discussions about a nonprofit’s target audience can feel a bit clinical, often involving data and charts.  But a narrative description that brings these people to life can show a dynamic part of the program and provide some surprises.

In this case, a museum can tell stories about their members – who tend to be older, more affluent, engaged and connected to the primary mission. But research has shown that visitors – people who are not members – are younger, have children in the household, and are more broadly connected to the arts within the community. The first story is well known in the performing and visual arts, the second less so. So these stories can create pictures of a broad and engaged patron base, young and old – vital to attracting new visitors and funders.

Tell stories about how you want people to think about you

In real life, everybody tries to put their best foot forward, to highlight their strengths. Nonprofits are no different and are often challenged to showcase their assets in a competitive environment. In marketing terms, this is called changing the frame of reference – creating stories that can make people think about you in a different way.

Back to the museum: They can tell stories that support a traditional frame of reference; as a curator and collector of artistic works. They can also tell a less traditional but interesting story about a museum as a social gathering place – where you can dine, learn about arts with friends and family, even be exposed to other artistic forms (music and dance, for example). Both subjects can support compelling stories, but one placing the museum in a different frame of reference can remove barriers for many potential visitors and open up different sources of funding.

Tell stories about what makes you different or unique

These stories address a fundamental part of the life of a nonprofit:  they all compete for supporters and funding, regardless of their mission. Compelling stories about what makes you special can move you up in line for consideration – at all levels. Museums often tell these stories as an artifact of their charter or artistic mission. Some are supported with municipal or public funding, as a service to the community. Others are extension of local universities, which provide both artistic and educational expressions. Still others showcase their independence and a niche artistic focus – filling in gaps otherwise not served in the market. Each have distinct advantages, and can be attractive to certain types of visitors and funders.

Give people reasons to believe your stories

These are better known as proof points, or benefits – stories that provide specific examples about the value of engaging with a nonprofit. These often show up as simple lists, but an engaging story about them can give them new life.

For museums, stories about proof points can relate to student programs, visitors to special exhibitions, even unusual grants won. All of these stories have a quantitative nature, and numbers can be useful in adding credibility to a story.

No matter which approach works best for you, stories told creatively and aligned consistently create a unique voice for a nonprofit.

Stories well told work. The one that started this article is true, and happened to me 20 years ago – and I was hooked on art from that point on.

John Klein is the founder of Trilithon Partners, a marketing consulting agency in Cary, N.C.

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