Storytelling for non-profit organizations


Text by Raluca Petrescu

Everybody knows it by now: stories are not only for children anymore. Technically speaking, they have never been, since the ability to imagine, report and interpret symbols was one of the engines of human development.

But recently, stories’ ludic and innocent conception have been slowly replaced by a technical and more intentional sense. Telling a story has become synonymous with selling products and promoting ideas - a marketing technique and an efficient way to attract, excite, and influence. Advertisers got that. Politicians are doing it too. Why shouldn’t NGOs do the same?

For NGOs, storytelling is a way to achieve many things at a time, like communicating their missions to the world, reaching donors, showing the impact of their activities, and asking people for support. All of these without being boring and stiff, or letting the message get lost in the noise.


So, move away from “eradicating poverty,” “making the world a better place” generalities and create compelling messages to connect with people and make them care. Before you start, just ask yourself: If I wouldn’t know about the issue I want to promote, would I understand it right away? Would I care? Would I want to get involved?

Then, start building your story following these steps:

1. Define your message

So there’s a problem and there’s someone or something being affected by that problem. You have a solution or an efficient way to mitigate it and you want people to know about it. To get your supporters on board, you need to explain your approach in a clear, concise and engaging way.

2. Define your audience

Take a moment to think about the people you want to talk to and how they can support your cause. Do you want them to volunteer? To donate? To sign a petition? Who is expected to resonate the most with the solution you advocate for? What other organizations or companies would join your efforts?

3. Choose a representative scenario

Think of a situation that can showcase the problem you want to make people aware of. It should be relevant and relatable, emotional and easy to grasp. There’s an entire literature on story structures and models, but I believe most of them are variations of some classics, as Kurt Vonnegut points out in a popular lecture hereAlso, this graphic by TED and Super Interesante magazine perfectly resumes the stages of a great story:


4. Choose your heroes

Put a face to your cause. Pick common characteristics that your protagonists have with your audience because people tend to imagine themselves in those situations. Think similar demographics, social context, problems and challenges, hopes and dreams. You want your audience to empathize with the character, to be able to put themselves in their shoes.

5. Speak human

Just imagine you are talking to a friend. No jargon, no industry lingo, no pompous words. Speak his/her language and you will connect instantly.

6. Go for multimedia

I guess there’s no need to bring the attention span topic into the conversation or to remind you the “an image is worth a thousand words” cliché. I will encourage you though to take a moment and research NGOs who are successfully using multimedia in their campaigns – like this astonishing photo essay by charity: water; or this powerful video by UNICEF; or this funny spot by Rainforest Alliance; or this incriminating poster by WWF.


7. Choose the communications platforms and means

Having the audiences in mind will make it easier to identify the most efficient platforms or means of communicating your story. Where can you find those audiences? What communications channels do they usually use? How can they be reached? Through Facebook? Flyers? Photo exhibitions? Posters?

8. Choose a call to action

Make sure your story has a clear message and an action-oriented goal, even if it means raising awareness on a certain subject. Usually, a call-to-action should enable and encourage people to learn more, volunteer, donate, sign a petition and so on.

9. Identify supporters

Reach out to bloggers, influencers, journalists or other organizations that can support your cause and promote your story further.

Back to you. Do you relate to social and charity campaigns using storytelling? What are your favorite stories narrated by NGOs?


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