15 Ways to Harness the Power of Nonprofit Storytelling for Advocacy

Storytelling is a buzzword that is used everywhere in the nonprofit world these days. But nonprofit storytelling is not connected to advocacy as much as it could be. Everyone in advocacy needs to be able to tell a compelling story about why your issue matters and how it relates to people. Storytelling allows potential supporters to connect with your organization in an immediate and meaningful way.

That said, storytelling for advocacy can be a tricky proposition involving the intersections of organizational dynamics, organizational structure, and grassroots organizing. Here are 15 easy ways your organization can tap into the power of storytelling.

  1. Imagine your target audience. Knowing who you are trying to reach and persuade is fundamental for advocacy. Although I believe everyone has a good story to tell, understanding who you’re speaking to will truly connect with your audience.
  1. Storytelling makes your issue come to life. Putting personality behind your issue can take lifeless statistics and connect it with real emotion. A good story told by the right person can connect with elected officials and constituents in a way that a monotone PowerPoint cannot. Think people, not Prezis.
  1. Build a culture of storytelling. Have everyone in your organization—from your president to your interns— be on the look out for compelling stories. Your entire team should be keeping an ear out for good stories. It’s not always an easy process, but encouraging everyone to get involved will make it easier.
  1. Create a process for storytelling. What happens when a great story is identified? Who in your advocacy organization will collect the story? How should interviews take place? Who will train and work with the storytellers? Having a process for advocacy storytelling will ensure that it becomes part of your organization’s culture and isn’t just a one-off event.
  1. Invent storytelling personas. A storyteller persona has all of the components to help you recruit the right person to be a story teller for your group or organization. To better understand your organization’s ideal storytelling personas, ask yourself the following questions: What stories do want to tell? Who is the ideal storyteller? What is the ideal demographic? What is the ideal location?
  1. Identify your ideal persona. Once you’ve created an outline of your persona, start to define the details of the ideal persona for your issue. If you could pick anyone to tell their story, who would it be and why? Dig deep and explain the ideal characteristics of your persona. What is their location? Age? Gender? Race? How about other characteristics? And beyond the basic persona, who else is affected by this issue?
  1. Begin recruiting storytellers. Now that you’ve imagined your ideal persona, begin searching for real people who reflect your imagined storyteller. Remember: Recruitment does not happen overnight, so don’t expect to go live with your video tomorrow or even next week.

Storytelling for advocacy can be a ton of work. Identifying the stories you want and finding the people who own that story is not an easy process, but it will help show your organization’s human side. Keep in mind that your personas should be a guide, but your storytellers in real life might look different than your ideal personas. And that’s okay.

  1. Quantity v. quality. Think about how many stories you need. By mapping out your personas, you can answer the quantity question. But quality is always important. Finding members and advocates who have a real story to tell takes time and effort. It’s important to dedicate time to find the right people.
  1. Consider how you’ll tell the story. There are so many ways to tell stories. Your organization could write blog posts based on Q&A’s with your storytellers. You could create a video featuring your storyteller. You could interview your storyteller and create a testimonial based on their responses. Whichever avenue you decide to take, having someone on your team pre-interview your storyteller will help clarify which approach will work best.

For example, you might have identified someone with a wonderful story, but perhaps the person is shy or unwilling to go on camera. Instead of losing their story, find another way to share their words, like an oral interview that’s transcribed into a written Q&A.

  1. Keep in mind who owns the story. Organizations may say they want to tell a story, but it does not mean they will embrace it. Buy-in from the leaders of your organization is critical to sharing your organization’s most authentic stories. But, telling a story is not a top-down affair. The more you constrain the story, the more manufactured it will sound and the less real it will feel. Trusting your storyteller will empower them, which will come across in their words and create a more emotional connection with the audience.
  1. Applicability of the story. Just because the story seems compelling, it does not mean it is applicable for your organization’s needs. The more you know of your advocacy personas, the easier it is to focus in on the type of advocates you need.

Don’t get me wrong—keeping an open mind is great and having a diversity of voices when it comes to advocates is critical. But focusing on the stories that are most applicable to your organization will be more beneficial in the long run.

  1. Plan your interview. When you’re pre-interviewing a potential storyteller, asking broad questions first will help them get comfortable. Then, work toward the more specific questions, which will be closer to the heart of your issue. It will likely take time to get to the core of the story, but giving your storyteller time to relax and acquainted with you is worth it.
  1. Make storytellers comfortable. Let your storyteller know their story has value and that their words matter. Assure them that their effort can make a real difference. Remind your storyteller they have taken on an important task that your organization is committed to sharing in a respectful way.

Consider lots of different factors when planning your interviews and pre-interviews. Having water and snacks handy is always a good thing, but that’s not enough. Should a translator be present? Is your storyteller sharing something emotional?

Create a welcoming environment and make sure they have everything they need to feel valued and welcome, including space. It there are pauses and silences during the interview, don’t break them or put words in the storyteller’s mouth. Give your storytellers room to think and compose themselves.

  1. Finding storytellers is not easy. Recruitment is usually the biggest hurdle to getting a story about an issue told in a compelling way, but other issues come up as well. You might get a great story from a storyteller, but they might tell you they’re no longer comfortable going public with the story. You might conduct an entire interview, only to find out later that your recorder app ate the story—making it seemingly vanish forever. You might have to keep rescheduling with storytellers. Plan to work with more storytellers than you think you need—things will come up.
  1. Create a simple call to action. No matter how you share your storyteller’s words—on a blog post or a video on Facebook or a combination of many different mediums—you should always end with a clear call to action. What do you want views to do next? How can they get involved?

Remember: it’s better to have a straightforward call to action than a complex list of ways they can help. You can always test out different calls to action on different stories or change the call to action later, but keeping it simple is always best.

Joe Fuld
Joe Fuld is the President of The Campaign Workshop (https://www.thecampaignworkshop.com), a advocacy and political advertising agency in Washington D.C. that provides strategy, digital advertising, content and direct mail services to non-profit and political clients.