By Michelle Chen is an independent scholar who recently graduated with a PhD in mass communications with a focus on advocacy, activism and social change. She helps brands grow engagement and build relationships with their audience.


Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force today and they have greatly different media patterns, behaviors and habits compared to their parents. The oldest of the Millennial Generation are in their mid-careers, and as this generation become more secure in their careers and have more disposable income, nonprofits need to understand how they relate to causes to better capture their resources.

Donors, especially millennial donors, are motivated by specific issues and causes and typically do not have allegiance to specific organizations. This means that nonprofits have to compete with each other for donors’ attention and resources as they gravitate towards causes rather than organizations. To make matters worse, most millennials live their social lives online and are prone to information overload.

And this is where storytelling comes in. Stories are a great way to inspire action, get thousands of “likes” and online followers, further spreading your message across social networks. An effective story not only helps nonprofits attract new donors but also increases overall brand awareness, which can be good for landing corporate sponsorships or attracting media coverage.

So, what makes an effective storytelling campaign? It is not enough for your storytelling campaign to evoke feelings of sympathy. Stories also need to connect, inspire and motivate people to act. Elements your nonprofit should include in your storytelling campaigns include:

Show impact

People want to know and see the impact of their donations. Women for Women International does a good job of keeping their supporters updated with stories of women impacted by their program. The stories include quotes from women survivors of war that tell the story of how their lives have improved. A good strategy is to use a first-person perspective to create authenticity and a sense of personalness.

Once your donors are moved or inspired by your stories of impact, an effective way to capture their attention is to have a call-to-action. Lifting Hands International uses a donation tier, which is particularly effective in boosting online donations when accompanied by stories of impact. Donation tiers not only show the direct impact of donors’ contributions, but also allow them to select the impact that is most meaningful to them.

Sense of urgency

It is no secret that people tend to put off doing something important until the last minute. How do you overcome inertia? By creating a sense of urgency in your storytelling campaigns. When people feel a sense of urgency, they are more prone to act on behalf of a cause. The World Wildlife Fund uses the juxtaposition of images to create a story of how human actions and decisions have endangered wildlife. Showing the extent of destruction to our environment, this video creates a sense of urgency simply by stating that “we could be the last (generation) that can do anything about it. It’s time to decide.”

Creating a sense of urgency also works well for a matching gifts campaign or when showing a donation progress bar with a countdown timer to when a fundraising campaign ends. Paired with a compelling story that warns donors of the consequences of not acting, these campaigns can be extremely powerful in motivating them to donate or change their behavior.

Encourage user-generated storytelling with social media

One of the most effective ways to turn prospects into supporters, generate buzz about your nonprofit, and build loyalty with your volunteers and donors is to use user-generated storytelling. Encourage your donors, clients, or supporters to be part of your campaign by asking them to share their personal stories of impact and experience. This keeps them engaged with your nonprofit’s mission and builds an emotional connection to your brand. As digital natives, many millennials (and younger) live on social media, which makes user-generated storytelling campaigns a great way to empower, inspire and engage this generation.

Another benefit of having a user-generated storytelling campaign is the vast amount of digital assets you can collect from the campaign. You can repurpose the digital assets for your website, newsletter and social media posts.

The non-partisan organization, Issue Voter, uses user-generated content on social media for its #WhyIVote campaign to raise awareness about the importance of voting and motivate others to vote.

Some nonprofits may worry about giving up too much creative control to users or may worry that the campaign might be hijacked by opponents. However, with preparation, you can still be in control of your campaign. For instance, be specific about what you want your supporters, donors or clients to do and say. Explain in detail what aspects of their stories you want them to share, why you want them to share, and the social media platforms you want them to use. Then tie your user-generated stories together using hashtags and encourage them to tag your organization and share it with their social networks. Finally, be sure to monitor social media platforms as the campaign unfolds and have a contingency plan for when things do not meet your expectations.

Give your donors a peek behind the curtain

Images are extremely powerful in evoking emotions and can be more persuasive than text alone. The medium of choice for millennials and Generation Z are videos and images. Use videos to show your donors a deeper look into the mission of your nonprofit. It can be as simple as telling a story of “a day in the life of” your client, staff or volunteer. You can use basic storytelling techniques to create compelling videos that use humor, cliffhangers, excitement or drama to capture attention. You can show your clients’ adventures, escapades (this works especially well for animal shelter nonprofits), or triumphs.

Invisible people, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the narratives about homelessness, uses videos to help supporters and prospective donors learn more about the struggles of homelessness. Most of the videos feature a homeless person sharing their life story, struggles, and success.

Tap into shared experiences

Tell a story that reminds your donors or prospective donors of a shared experience. Help your donors remember a similar memory or experience so that they can connect emotionally to the struggles and difficulties your clients face daily. People are more inclined to help others when they can see their lived experiences mirrored back to them. Help them remember a time when they felt helpless, uncomfortable, indignant, or a time when they felt cherished, loved, and respected.

One way to do so is to have a volunteer, staff or advocate share a personal story that draws on past experiences. Personal stories lend credibility to the issue and can help donors connect on a deeper emotional level. Raising awareness for bullying in schools, the organization GreatSchools.org drew on parents’ personal experiences with bullying and parenting to discuss the uncomfortable subject of bullying in schools.

Regardless of the campaign, there is always a place for good stories. Storytelling allows your organization to emotionally connect and solidify your relationship with your supporter base as well as reach out to your prospective donors by inspiring and moving them with your stories. As the newer generation of prospective donors gravitate towards images and videos, tapping into the art of storytelling is something your nonprofit cannot afford to do without.


The Global NGO Technology Report is a biennial research project that seeks to gain a better understanding of how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide use web and email communications, online fundraising tools, social media, mobile technology, and productivity software. Now in its fourth edition, this year’s report provides technology benchmarks for Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States and Canada.

 

Cut Through the Clutter: Why Storytelling Matters for Nonprofits