Storytelling for non-profits

Storytelling, used well, is the single most powerful tool available to nonprofits

You know you love reading a good book, watching a great movie or listening to an engaging story. But why? And how does it relate to telling stories for your nonprofit?

Our brains love stories

It’s true! Research shows that character-driven stories cause the brain to make oxytocin. This hormone is sometimes called the “love hormone” or the “bliss hormone” because of how it makes us feel when our brains release it.

In another study, people who received oxytocin vs a placebo donated more money to more causes, which is a very good reason to incorporate storytelling into your organisation’s culture! A Carnegie Mellon University study compared the difference between using a story and data in a fundraising appeal. On average, students who received an appeal containing a story about an individual donated more than twice as much as students receiving a fact-based appeal.

The simple fact is that when we make donors feel good, they give more money.

Stories give meaning to facts

What would you rather read? A piece detailing the stats around rising unemployment and its relation to Inflation, or a story about a person who recently lost her job and couldn’t afford the basics in life but, after joining your program, learned new skills and found a new and better job?

Almost every one of us would choose the latter. This is because stories breathe life into data.

For a great example of how you can do this, watch Hans Rosling’s video, “Don’t Panic – End Poverty”

Stories emotionally connect us to people and make circumstances relatable

Since we can’t literally live someone else’s life, the next best thing one can do is learn their story. Let characters speak for themselves. Let the audience hear the character’s voice through direct quotes in a written story or through dialogue in a video.

Social media gives your organisation a platform to amplify these stories and voices, allowing for a greater connection. In fact, both Facebook and Twitter have pages dedicated to users’ stories (Facebook Stories and #TwitterStories) while Instagram and Snapchat curate story feeds around certain events.

Stories inspire behavior change

Study after study shows that a good story impacts a person’s behavior for the better. A mass media storytelling campaign in Tanzania influenced citizens to prevent “sugar daddy” sexual relationships between younger women and older men. Medical students’ attitudes about dementia patients improved after the students participated in a storytelling exercise, which helped them to better understand the condition. Another study suggests that a story-telling methodology may help to control blood pressure in African Americans. And of course – as mentioned above – research shows that people donate more money to a greater variety of causes after receiving oxytocin, while yet another study shows that the brain actually makes oxytocin in response to character-driven stories.


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Ruen Govinder | Hashtag Nonprofit

Founder and Executive Director, Hashtag Nonprofit

Ruen Govinder is the founder and director of Hashtag Nonprofit. She has over 20 years of experience in consulting and managing online communications and technology for the development sector. She produced a series of e-books on communications strategies for nonprofits, and has worked with clients across Africa and in the United States.

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