The Evolution of Nonprofit Storytelling: Who’s the Hero?

Today we welcome a special guest blogger, Stelter Client Strategist Kasi Zieminski: lifelong learner, superb storyteller, mindful marketer.

What do you love about storytelling? I still remember writing stories as a child, scribbling gibberish for my parents to translate and spinning yarns in spiral notebooks. These days, I have the privilege of helping nonprofits and their supporters share stories in transformational, life-changing ways.

Stories move us because they are more than just facts. When done right, stories invite people on a journey. Studies show that stories, more than statistics, can help us remember and change our minds.

Once Upon a Time…

You’re probably familiar with the basic narrative arc of a great story. Author and trainer Andy Goodman explains it like this:

  • Who’s it about? = protagonist
  • What do they want? = goal
  • What stands in their way? = barrier
  • How do they respond? = strategy
  • What happens? = meaning

You can probably map that arc from your favorite book or movie. But can you do so with your last appeal mailing or newsletter feature?

Dr. Russell James elaborates on this concept as the universal hero story, in which a hero:

  1. Exists in the original world
  2. Receives a call to adventure
  3. Rejects then accepts the call and enters new world
  4. Undergoes ordeal, overcomes enemy
  5. Gains reward/transformation
  6. Returns with gift to improve original world

Can you see how that journey might come to life in stories your organization tells about itself, or your donors? I invite us to be thoughtful about who and how we present the hero.

The Plot Thickens

Historically in our industry, in the presence of extreme need, anything that could fund the mission was acceptable. We often told stories of donors fueling heroic organizations who served victims. But there were a couple of problems with this approach.

It didn’t engage donors in ways that made them feel like they were making a real difference. And focusing too much on “victim” status runs the risk of exploiting and degrading, not representing people with the dignity and worth they inherently deserve.

More recently, nonprofits have shifted from being less org-centric and more donor-centric. In these stories, organizations are fueled by heroic donors who serve other people. This engages the donor more, meeting them where they are and celebrating their generosity. But, let’s be mindful of over-correction.

If this approach skews too far, donor-centric can mean donors as “savior.” They may get too much credit as individuals, discrediting the village it takes to tackle complex issues and live out mission, vision and values together. It can disempower a nonprofit’s clients in their own lives. Our stories should invite donors into the work, not separate them from the community.

Happily Ever After?

The challenge—and opportunity—is finding the right balance. One quick gut check: if everyone featured in a story sees it, how will they feel?

M&R offers additional considerations in their Guide to Ethical and Effective DR Creative, describing the storytelling we aspire to as “a reflection of the relationship between an organization, its audience, and the communities or individuals it serves.”

And in a recent Ethical Storytelling for Fundraising webinar, TrueSense distills these concepts into a powerful visual representing the mutuality that nonprofits, donors, and clients can find in true community with each other:

Infographic from TrueSense
Image credit: TrueSense

To Be Continued…

As nonprofits—and all of us—continue to evolve, so should our marketing and fundraising. The story on how to tell stories is still being written.

Stay tuned for more about storytelling on the Stelter Insights blog! In the meantime, check out additional resources from our archives.

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