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Telling stories

How simple stories with people at their heart can strengthen your organisation and attract supporters to your cause.

Stories can help to move an organisation away from dry statements of policy, mission and values to painting vivid pictures in words which have real impact.

Richard Spence from The Change Triad shares his experience.

What makes a good story

A good story is:

  • simple: it doesn’t try to cover too many bases
  • short: no more than a minute long, easy to remember, no script needed
  • active: the story is about doing things
  • true: telling a true story is a chance to talk honestly about the organisation
  • told for a purpose.

Good stories feature:

  • a strong character: a person at the centre who we care about
  • a turning point: a change or resolution.

Stories are not always serious. Touches of humour and lightness can show that you realise your organisation has limitations too.

An example from the Samaritans

This story from the director of a branch of the Samaritans illustrates many of the points which make up a good story:

“An 18-year-old girl living rough in the city was asked what our service did for her. She said we couldn’t help her with food, she got that from the soup kitchen. We couldn’t help her with clothes, they came from the Salvation Army. We couldn’t help her with money, she knew exactly where to beg. So what did our service do for her? “It is,” she said, “somewhere I can rest my heart.”

Think about your audience

When telling a story, always start by thinking about the audience. Ask yourself why they should be interested and what you want them to say or do as a result of hearing your story.

Fundraising

Ask yourself how your story attracts your audience to contribute. How does it build a relationship and match their needs?

Example one

“With all these redundancies, we were so busy and cramped for space, we decided we’d have to start seeing people in the boiler cupboard. Thanks to the thousand windows you cleaned to raise money for us, we can support people somewhere a bit cooler.”
- Advice centre manager

In this story, the content is relevant to the audience and what they may need. Corporate donors may well be worrying about redundancy and want to know there is a place that cares about helping them. It also:

  • shows life in an arresting glimpse
  • goes beyond the thank you letter
  • celebrates what the funders did
  • tells it how it is, in a human way.

Example two

Stories about how people use the service also speak volumes.

“He was panicking when he called. 3am, no sleep, close to the edge.  After half an hour, he yawned, laughed, said ‘thank you’ and could he phone again if it all got too much? We said yes, whenever he needed.”
- Chair, 24 hour helpline

A story like this shows stakeholders how the organisation is relevant to a wider society and encourages those in the audience who may actually need the service to call.

Service users and potential volunteers

Stories can help these groups relate to the service and engage with it. The right story can generate responses such as:

  • “that’s like me, so  it’s OK to go there/get involved.”
  • “I can connect and will be heard.”
  • “if they can do it, I can do it.” 

Staff and volunteers

Short, personal stories are great in newsletters, on noticeboards and for leaders speaking to people. They can illustrate:

  • impact and motivation: reasons to be a volunteer
  • success: what someone achieved in or from the service
  • inclusion and bonding: ‘we are greater than the sum of our parts’.

They can also highlight the need for quality: many non profits may receive statutory funding which is subject to quality monitoring. Stories help awareness and move people beyond the mindset of ‘I’m only a volunteer’.

Using stories to manage change

Leaders should think about stories in an even wider sense. For example, a ‘future story’ would be your personal vision of a typical day in the future that is so clear it makes everyone else want to get there. Or you might tell a story about taking a principled decision to encourage a change of values - but only if you can match up to that value yourself. The teller must be as authentic as the tale or their reputation will be shortlived.

Find your stories

Once you appreciate the power of stories, if you listen and you will start to find them everywhere. Note them down and practice using them to inspire, persuade and celebrate the heroes around you. You may be amazed by the results!

Useful links

Have your say

How have you used stories in your work? Do some stories work better than others? Do you have a policy about the way you tell stories - the language or types of images you use?

Have your say on the Communications and the media forum.

Page last edited Mar 31, 2017

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