ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 - 9:56am
posted by
Kate Elliott,

Program Coordinator
Oregon Health Care
Quality Corporation

There are mountains of resources for nonprofits who want to perfect the art of telling the stories of the clients and communities they serve. Successfully telling these stories is considered a crucial part of nearly all aspects of nonprofit marketing, from the basics of communicating a mission and vision to soliciting the support of donors, inspiring commitment from volunteers, writing compelling grant proposals and more. To be sure, these are all very important aspects of defining and promoting a nonprofits’ identity, but individual organizations and the sector as a whole have an even bigger reason to sharpen their storytelling skills.

In fact, a recent Nonprofit Quarterly blog post calls on nonprofits to tell use their storytelling skills on a much broader level; to change the prevailing narrative about being poor in America. This call to action is right on point. After all, nonprofits invest significant intellectual and financial resources in learning to tell rich, vibrant stories as a means of marketing and fundraising. Many organizations are well-positioned to use existing skills to support honest portrayals of their clients in politics, popular culture and the media as well as challenge misconceptions or over-generalizations. As a trusted community resource with intimate knowledge of the hardships and challenges their clients face, nonprofits are in a unique position to tell these stories.

Telling these stories is no simple matter. Initiating honest dialogue about tough issues like economic class and the disparity between the rich and poor is tough work. Changing pre-conceived notions and popular myths is certainly not any easier. Having these conversations is not something America does well, but nonprofits are the perfect neutral player to facilitate them. Here are some things nonprofits can do to put their storytelling skills to good use:

Stay in touch with your clients and communities you serve.

The stories nonprofits can tell are most useful when they are current, honest and real. Nonprofits should continually re-commit to truly knowing their clients and other community stakeholders. However, organizations should also know that by bringing these voices to the table they must be prepared to commit to hearing any feedback they receive.

Don’t shy away from hard conversations.

It can be hard to take a stand when an organization wants to be viewed as non-political, or at the very least impartial. The unfortunate reality is that these issues can become partisan all too quickly. However, that isn’t reason enough for nonprofits to avoid them entirely, but might be an even more compelling call for the thoughtful, fair and balanced perspective of a trusted organization.

Have real conversations about augmenting the cultural competency and inclusivity of all organizations.

No matter the path to cultural competence or inclusivity, nonprofit organizations must make their efforts meaningful. These efforts must be a part of bigger picture plans, like board development or a strategic plan.

Nonprofit organizations should use expertise and a neutral position in the community to help marginalized people tell their stories, facilitate tough conversations and focus the national dialogue.

Kate Elliott has worked for nonprofit healthcare organizations since 2004. She graduated from the ASU Lodestar Center's master's of nonprofit studies program in 2010.

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Click here to read Susie Brown's post, "Vital Fundraising Skill - The Power of Story Time."


This is a great topic, that all too many times goes unaddressed. As you mentioned story telling in relation to non-profits is used abundantly in fundraising and to create case for supports and case statements. However, if that is a non-profit's only reason for telling these important stories, they are doing themselves and their community a disservice. All too often, the stories heard sound contrived, predictable or all together made up, they are what one would expect from a solicitation. But, if like you said non-profits stay in touch with clients and build vibrant and sustainable relationships, inspiring and robust stories can appear giving hope to the community and possibly greater funds to the cause. To truly give the community a well-rounded look at what a non-profit is doing and its impact, story-telling needs to be fresh and true, touching on all the real issues to give an accurate perspective, because we as a sector are never ones to shy away from a problem or tough issue.

I feel that nonprofits are in a great place to really connect with their clients and get great stories that they can share. I personally was drawn to the nonprofit sector after hearing passionate individual’s share their stories about their work and their rewarding experiences they had while working with clients. Nonprofit organizations are full of people who really want to make a difference and aren't afraid to address tough issues. I agree that this climate is a great formula for generating powerful stories and ultimately facilitating stronger connections to its clients and stakeholders.

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