Selling the Story – Refining the Narrative of Your Nonprofit

Alex Wagner, Media Lab Intern, Boston University 2014

Just like private corporations, nonprofits need a clear, concise message. Usually, advertisers rely on appeals to emotions, the format of the argument, and the credibility of the speaker, more popularly known as pathos, logos, and ethos, respectively. Creating an effective narrative for your nonprofit follows similar guidelines, although there are a few distinctions worth mentioning. Here’s the breakdown:

1. So what?
Why should your audience care? Although you may think this answer is intuitive, not everyone will feel the same way. You need to convince your audience your nonprofit is a necessity. Consider the well-known American Cancer Society: they brand themselves as the central hub in the cancer-fighting world, denoting their goals in categories such as “We Help You Stay Well” and “We Work to Find Cures.” Without them, you would lose all of these exceptional resources collected in one place.

2. Who, me?

Who is your audience? Think about what they might look for in a story—what are their beliefs, assumptions, biases, etc. about the cause you’re promoting with your nonprofit? Documentarian Danny Alpert suggests finding a shared narrative between you and the viewer, which can then be used to outline future aspirations both you and your audience will strive to fulfill.

3. How am I doing?

How do you plan on reaching that audience? The medium you pick is important, but not as much as how you show your story. Yes, showing—avoid lecturing your audience at all costs. Instead, explore new ways to explain your mission. The 2013 INBOUND Bold Talks offer some great storytelling tips such as using humor, repetition, or the element of surprise to get your message across. Above all, though, stay focused and simplify. It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of your own narrative, so establish a concise message early on and continue from there.

After following these few steps, your nonprofit narrative should be on its way to a leaner, cleaner, sharper, and more attractive version. Keep an eye out for our other blog posts on nonprofit storytelling for all your media-related needs.