The Evolution of Nonprofit Storytelling: Why Words Matter

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

The Evolution of Nonprofit Storytelling: Why Words Matter

Last month, I talked about how nonprofit heroes and narratives have shifted. Now let’s explore how the language we use can help us achieve our goals while also contributing to the greater good.

Here at Stelter, I work primarily with health care and medical research nonprofits. When we craft cover letters and impact stories, we’re often finding the balance between what organizations accomplish and what donors make possible.

A Great Storytelling Word: “Help!”

A cancer center, for example, may focus more on investigators making breakthrough discoveries and doctors advancing cutting-edge treatments for patients. A children’s hospital, on the other hand, may say that donors are transforming kids’ lives every day.

Both of these are true! Let’s just remember that neither is happening in a vacuum. One easy word can bridge the gap: help.

It’s still donor-centric to say that friends like you help make it possible for children to get the high-quality care they need and deserve, today and for years to come—or, that your support helps fuel the groundbreaking science and innovation necessary to find a cure.

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Lead with People and Strengths

Emphasizing collective impact is one way to avoid the “savior” complex. Using people-first language and strengths-based messaging can help keep us away from a “victim” mentality.

Children’s National Hospital is a Stelter client who uses inclusive language to avoid perpetuating biases. From their style guide:

“People-first language places the person at the center rather than the problem. Focusing on the individual rather than the condition minimizes generalizations and stereotypes.”

Rather than saying…
Disabled people
The homeless
Autistic children
Mentally ill
Suffering from
Instead say…
People with disabilities
Families experiencing homelessness
Children diagnosed with autism
Person with a mental illness, or mental health disorder
Living with, or being treated for
(Source: Language Matters: A Guide to Using Appropriate Language, Children’s National Hospital.)

Another client, American Friends Service Committee, has a thoughtful approach to communicating their values. Guided by the Quaker belief that “there is the spark of the divine in every human being,” AFSC does not “misuse people or their images to elicit pity or inflame hatred,” and they “avoid language and descriptions that demean people or make them seem helpless, less competent than others, pitiful, or naïve.”

Here are a few of AFSC’s examples of strengths-based messaging and asset-based framing:

  • Avoid referring to AFSC as “empowering” others.
  • Rather than (deficit-framed): “We help at-risk youth in high-crime neighborhoods,” try (asset-framed): “We help young people overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.”

(Sources: AFSC Brandraising Guide; “Asset-Framing: The Other Side of the Story,” by Trabian Shorters.)

The Heart of the Matter

In your storytelling, small shifts like these can make a big difference. But if any of the tips here feel counter to best practices you’ve been following, let’s dig a little deeper.

M+R describes five elements of effective creative:

  1. Need
  2. Impact
  3. Urgency
  4. Relevance
  5. Authenticity

Perhaps there’s a tactic that has worked for your organization—like stories and images that generate powerful emotions, but may also dehumanize people while doing so. M+R notes that the underlying elements of that approach are need and urgency, and we can adjust language and find other creative ways to emphasize those elements—ethically and effectively.

Humanity = Authenticity

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, of course—but that’s the magic of storytelling! When you honor the humanity of the people you’re talking to and the people you’re talking about, I believe you can tell a more authentic story—the kind that really sticks with someone, makes them think and moves them to action.

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