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Tell Your Story: 4 Tips to Build Your Nonprofit Brand

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Headshot.LivingstonSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Julie Livingston

How do you get nonprofit donors, supporters and members engaged, excited about and motivated to support your organization above all others? Storytelling is an essential but often misunderstood marketing tool, because few organizations understand what comprises effective storytelling and how it can be leveraged. According to a study by the Meyer Foundation/Georgetown University/Center for Social Impact Communication, 90% of nonprofits agree that they will increase their storytelling efforts over the next two years. Still, it remains challenging for smaller nonprofits, without many resources, to figure out the most impactful means of telling their story so that it inspire constituents to respond and take action by donating their money, time or resources. Storytelling is what can adjoin your nonprofit or association’s community, sponsors/funders, beneficiaries, and employees and volunteers with your cause and vision.

The Medium is the Message

PrintBe sure to tell your story at every stakeholder touchpoint so that it is “unmissable.” This includes special appeal and membership outreach, web site, social media messaging, testimonials, bylined articles, photos and video (one the most shared media online today), newsletters and the annual report.  Use a variety of stories across these platforms for collective impact. Importantly, make sure that your website is optimized for mobile technology as most people use their smartphones to access news and information today, so using strong visuals – photos, video or infographics – will tell your story with greater impact.

Groundswell, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit, helps kids and communities in New York City’s five boroughs to mount colorful murals in their neighborhoods. For 18 years, the organization has created more than 450 public art works and collaborated with both community groups and schools. For Groundswell, mural-making is a storytelling tool. The process introduces kids to the concept of art as a medium for social change. It is through experience that young people become empowered to make their voices heard about the things they care about.

Can’t Miss Positioning

Nonprofits that are bold storytellers – meaning their story is a focal point on every communications platform, most importantly on the organization’s website – will be more effective in connecting with key stakeholders. According to the Meyer Foundation/Georgetown University study, 33% of nonprofits have at least one story on their homepage, 21% have a separate tab or page for stories and 15% integrate stories into program-specific areas.

postpartumprogressclimboutofdarknessPostpartum Progress, started by mom blogger/marketing executive Katherine Stone is a growing nonprofit that educates the public on postpartum depression. The organization has been particularly effective in leveraging the stories of women suffering from perinatal mental illness –which was relatively unknown- and bringing it to the forefront.  As a result, Postpartum Program has attracted major media coverage and garnering support from important partners such as CVS Pharmacy and Crest. For the past few years, Postpartum Progress has mounted its Climb Out of the Darkness® fundraiser, held on or near the longest day of the year, where women around the globe climb, hike or walk as a symbol of climbing out of the darkness of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and into the light of improved mental health and well-being. This organizational video brings the seriousness of postpartum depression to life.

Be Brief and to the Point

When writing your story in any form, be succinct and watch the word count carefully. The internet has made people used to reading in chunks and as a result, short, bullet pointed pieces get the most traction. According to the Meyer Foundation/Georgetown University study, the average length of text stories is 378 words. A study on viewer abandonment by Visible Measures indicates that marketers have a mere 10 seconds to engage a viewer before they continue to scroll down or click away. Further, if you have not fully engaged your audience after the first 30 seconds, you’ve likely lost 33% of viewers; and after one minute, 45% of viewers have stopped watching.

MedShadow is an online nonprofit that informs the public about the side effects, risks and benefits of medicine, both over the counter and prescription. In this engaging and succinct brief video series, the organization provides useful tips about side effects – what to look for and how to speak with your doctor or pharmacist – with an objective of driving people to its website. The organization produced the videos inexpensively, by using a streamlined production process and  Google+Hangout On Air.  Using the nonprofit’s founder, Su Robotti, as spokesperson, it humanizes its mission and is highly shareable on social platforms.

Elevate Your Story Through Partnerships

GoodDogCancerstudyLike many other small nonprofits, The Good Dog Foundation, which trains and certifies therapy dog teams, has limited financial resources. Yet, it has been extremely strategic about developing partnerships and alliances with major research institutions such as Yale University, Mount Sinai Beth Israel and Pace University’s Department of Criminal Justice and the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC), Federal Bureau of Prisons. Its co-branded research studies on the effectiveness of animal assisted therapy have elevated the organization as a leader in the animal therapy space and serve as a powerful storytelling platform. In addition to raising Good Dog’s visibility, the results of the studies have led to major media coverage in media outlets such as The New York Times.  When storytelling is leveraged in this way, it can most definitely impact a nonprofit’s fundraising efforts and bottom line, as donors want to give to organizations that are visible and experts in their field. 

Once your story is developed, ask outsiders to weigh in – does it effectively communicate your nonprofit’s mission?  Does it have a distinct call-to-action? Once posted online, use Google Analytics and other social measurement tools to monitor how your content is being received. This should inform subsequent storytelling initiatives.


Julie Livingston is the president of WantLeverage, a public relations and business development consultancy.

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