A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Nonprofit Impact Stories

Ryan Jones • Jul 16, 2020

I’m sure that the work your nonprofit organization does is important. But I’m also sure that thousands of other nonprofits out there are also doing important things. As someone with a limited amount of budget to give to the causes that are close to my heart, how am I supposed to choose? The truth is, it’s up to you to convince me. And the best way to do that is with an impact story.

What is an Impact Story?

Rather than just explaining what your organization does, which can be a little…dry, an impact story uses a real narrative, featuring actual people and events, to make an emotional connection between your audience and the valuable work that you do.  You can type out an impact story in blog posts or in an email, share it on social media channels, record a video, put together a photo essay, or whatever your imagination can come up with—they all count as impact stories and they’re going to turn potential donors into lifelong supporters if you do it right.

Communicate Your Impact with this FREE Storytelling Toolkit

Use this toolkit to discover the key elements of a good impact story and learn how to write yours. Plus, you will get access to a template so you can get a head start on your writing.

Why are Impact Stories Important?

The key to the value of great stories is the personal, emotional connection that they can forge with your audience. Creating an emotional bond with the work you do has the same effect as an emotional bond with anything: a pet, a tv show, your first car, the shirt you wore to that Pearl Jam show back in ‘97 when you met that riot grrrl from Wichita…

You get the idea. People, places, things, and even businesses hold a special place in our hearts when we hear or tell stories about them. And that connection makes people more likely to give.

If you need another reason, think about your content marketing program. There are only so many ways to explain what your organization does. Nonprofit storytelling significantly boosts the amount of content you can put out, and new stories are always happening, so chances are you aren’t going to run out of material to add to your email newsletter, your website, or your annual report.

How to Write Compelling Stories

It’s likely you have a great idea for a story in mind already. But before you start banging away at your keyboard, it’s a good idea to take a step back and make a plan. Start by making an outline of your story that will provide a framework for your narrative and keep you focused on the end goal. Your outline should answer a few key questions:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What is the purpose of this story?
  3. Which platform is this story for?
  4. What is the problem?
  5. What is the solution?
  6. What emotion do I want the reader to feel?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s a good idea to go a little deeper into your plot. You’ll have to think back to your grade school literature class and try to remember the story structure graph:

Nonprofit Storytelling

Whether your story is pages long or can fit into a tweet, whether it’s a hero’s journey or a melodrama or a horror story (hopefully not!), this structure will help to get you through it. Each element of the graph serves a specific purpose:

Exposition – Introduces the main characters (real people!), the setting for the story (the time and place as they relate to your organization), and the mood (urgency is a good place to start).

Conflict – This is the problem in your story, the main thing that drives the plot. The problem is often solved by something your nonprofit did. Exposition and conflict may occur almost simultaneously, especially in shorter pieces.

Rising Action – All the events that lead to the climax of your story are considered rising action. This is a good place to showcase how your nonprofit works and the steps that lead to the impact your team makes.

Climax – This is the turning point in the story, the peak of the action, and the point at which the path to resolution is realized. This is the highest emotional level in your story and the part that really connects you to your audience.

Resolution – The end. It doesn’t necessarily have to leave the reader with warm fuzzies, but it should at least make you think and it should definitely leave your audience with a link between their emotions and your nonprofit organization. 

Feel free to discuss the future, and how your organization is going to continue to make an impact, and of course, this is your opportunity to drop in a call to action that motivates them to do something—donate, volunteer, attend an event, whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do.

Before you start writing, quickly jot down what fits into each of these steps in your story. If it looks like it’s going to be too long for your social media post, maybe consider cutting some of the plot elements. If it’s too short for your blog post, it might be time to do a little more research to tease out some additional beats of rising action.

Above all else, write a story that’s true and features real people (or animals, or environments) being helped in a way that is unique and specific to your organization. Real stories make for real emotion and real donations.

10 Nonprofit Storytelling Tips

When you’re ready to actually sit down and compose your story, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind that will boost the impact and make an even better connection with your audience.

Be Concise

It can be easy to get distracted and have your story balloon into a novel, especially when you care deeply about the cause that you’re promoting. The structure that we discussed above is the first step in staying focused on a compelling, readable story, but it’s also a good idea to have “less is more” as your mantra. 

Particularly in the internet era, a tight story that holds the audience’s attention is going to do more legwork for your fundraising appeals and marketing campaigns than a meandering, detailed tale that loses people along the way. So keep referring to your outline to make sure your story is following the path to success.

Be Specific

A great man once said, “specificity is the soul of narrative.” If you have access to specific information and have permission to include it in your story, DO IT. A story about a guy in America is a lot less compelling than one about Carlos Johnson from Topeka, Wisconsin.  If the story is about a major donor, ask if they mind if you include the amount of the donation. The more specific details you include, the more credible and relatable your story will be.

Use Different Media

Try your best to make your story multimedia friendly. Type out a long-form version that can be repurposed into a video or infographic. Cut your video into smaller pieces for Instagram or Facebook. Use a quote from your story to promote it on Twitter. Cross-promoting your content will help you to reach a larger audience.

Quality vs. Quantity

Donors tend to be more motivated by stories about a single individual as opposed to large groups. There is power in a relatable story about one person but that power can be lost if you try to extrapolate it out to large groups. So tell a personal story that illustrates what your nonprofit does for the world, and avoid making sweeping statements about the “thousands of people who need help.”

Stay on Brand

Try to use the same tone in your stories as you use in your brand. If your organization customarily is positive and upbeat, keep your stories the same. If your audience is used to tearjerkers, go ahead and write something that will have them reaching for a tissue and their wallets.

Write for Your Segments

Not all of your donors will care about the same thing or want to hear your message in the same way. Try to customize stories that target different segments of your audience. If you want to boost small donations from first-time donors, don’t expect a story about a billionaire philanthropist to get the job done. Likewise, don’t expect to reach baby boomers when you put your impact story on TikTok.

Feature Statistics

Numbers are a great way to show your organization’s impact. Data lets you demonstrate in a concrete way the difference you make, so don’t hesitate to weave statistics into your story – either as part of the narrative or even using design elements and visualization. Just make sure you explain where the numbers came from, what they mean, and why they’re good so that you can be sure your audience understands the point you’re trying to make.

Leverage Your Supporters

Enlist your real-life supporters to be part of your impact story if you have access to them. Use photos, or better yet, video, so that viewers can see the real people behind the stories; images are more relatable and memorable than text, and stories from actual people make your content emotionally credible. And ask questions that will generate quotes for social media so you can cross-promote (see above).

Follow Stories Over Time

Once you’ve told a great story about an interesting person who has benefited from the work you do, check back in periodically so that you can update your audience and showcase the positive change that their support has generated. Seeing the difference donations make to a person’s life over a long period of time increases the perceived value of those donations, while also showing how your organization is committed to its community.

Ask For Help

Above all else, don’t try to do it all yourself. Put out a call to your staff for help finding stories to share. Ask coworkers to try their hands at writing or producing an impact story so that the style isn’t always exactly the same. Get help with proofreading and editing—no one is perfect at proofing, especially when reading your own work. Not a photographer? Find someone who is.  The more you involve your team and community, the better your stories will be. And the better your stories, the bigger the impact you’ll make.

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Download the Story Toolkit 

Communicating impact and convincing people to get involved is a tough thing to do. But here’s the good news: you don’t have to invent stories, you simply need to pull them from the work you do everyday. In this toolkit we show you how.