In this column I talk a lot about how the idea of purpose ties into entrepreneurship and business; how brands can tell stories around their purpose to make more authentic connections to the people most likely to support them.
While this idea is relatively new in the world of entrepreneurship, in non-profits it’s always been the name of the game. Nonprofit organizations exist to do public good; in order to do their work, they must raise awareness and influence behavior. They must get people to donate time, treasure or talent. Effective storytelling is how they engage the public in their work.
Read on to learn more about why storytelling matters to non-profits, and how some of today’s leading non-profits use storytelling to build communities of purpose.
Why Storytelling Matters to Nonprofits
Non-profit organizations depend on volunteers and fundraising to achieve their goals. Volunteers help them stretch their fundraising dollars and help more people. Motivating volunteers and fundraising – whether through direct appeals to the public or through grants or planned giving campaigns – both rely on persuasive storytelling and imagery to get the public to open their pocketbooks, volunteer their time, and care about the cause..
Nonprofits must balance the need for data – to prove there is a need for their services, and to prove how effective they are at delivering them – with a need to be persuasive. However, I’d argue that persuasion is what makes the data matter.
Think of well known organizations like Habitat for Humanity. The numbers around their effectiveness as an organization are not nearly as well known as their story: that Jimmy Carter is involved in their work, that communities come together to help build homes for those in need, and that homeowners themselves build sweat equity by working on their own homes.
That story is more engaging and compelling than the facts around Habitat’s success – that they’ve built more than a million homes in more than 70 countries, or that they’re able to do that for a cost of less than $100,000 in most cases.
The stories, in this case, are what makes the numbers compelling. As Habitat CEO Johnathan Reckford says, “I’m not sure people would have ever heard of Habitat had the Carters not gotten involved.” Which is a perfect illustration of why storytelling is such an effective method of helping non-profits succeed.
Here are some strategies from the world of non-profit storytelling to help your organization meet its goals.
Strategy 1: Amplify Your Story Through Influencers
For social media based non-profit Feed a Billion, the purpose of living is giving. After meeting celebrity entrepreneur and motivational guru Tony Robbins in 2014, Dr. Ambuj Jain, founder of Feed a Billion, was inspired to do something about world hunger. He started a non-profit with the goal of delivering meals to more than a billion hungry people by November of 2020.
In less than two months since it’s January 2017 launch, Feed a Billion has already delivered more than 1.3 million meals to those in need. The organization does it by leveraging three types of influence: corporate influence and matching gifts to maximize the impact of individual giving, in-country partners whose infrastructure ensures donations help as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost, and social media influence campaigns to help Feed a Billion’s story go viral.
The takeaway? A great story is just the start. You need to identify and leverage the audiences that will help you spread those stories, invest in your purpose and help you work toward success.
Strategy 2: Connect Communities with Issues Advocacy
The death of a parent often leads to some soul searching on the part of their surviving offspring. In the case of former golf pro Brian Floriani, it led to a career change. He founded an organization to increase book ownership among at-risk infants, toddlers and school-age children throughout Chicagoland and eventually across the country.
Brian’s organization, Bernie’s Book Bank, was inspired by his new career as a para-educator and the story of his father, Dr, Bernard P. Floriani. Dr. Floriani rose from poverty to a professorship thanks to the books he read as child. Yet, Brian Floriani came to realize that many children will never have that opportunity because they don’t have access to books. So he founded an organization that would deliver access to books and the knowledge within them.
“We’re guaranteed the pursuit of happiness in this country, but it’s predicated on whom you know and what you know,” says Brian Floriani, Founder & Executive Director at Bernie’s Book Bank. “If you’re in an at-risk community, you only really have one of those cards–the knowledge card–so we want to make sure those children are as prepared for learning and success as possible.”
An important element of accomplishing this mission is the organization’s advocacy around children’s literacy. Many people don’t realize how critical early childhood reading readiness is to later academic and economic achievement; Bernie’s Book Bank has set out to change this.
The organization works closely with publishers, book distributors, the public and corporate sponsors to spread the word and garner financial support to connect children in need with reading materials that can transform their lives. Since 2009, Bernie’s Book Bank has distributed 8.1 Million quality books to at-risk children.
The takeaway: You can’t just have a great story or do great work. You must tell people why it matters. Advocacy helps build communities of purpose.
Strategy 3: Hubs That Create Communities Around Purpose
Libraries have always served an important role as a “third place” where people gather to learn from and connect with others in their community. But, as is the case in private industry, technology is transforming how they fulfill that role.
The Chicago Public Library is using technology to build community through transformation of its website into a media hub that nurtures learning, supports economic advancement, and builds community in the Chicagoland region. More than just a static website, the hub offers a variety of different kinds of content and formats for storytelling, from news and information about book releases, author visits, to stories about how different groups of users have benefited from their libraries.
The library sees its role as more than a place to check out books; their job is to support the community with technology. They are leveraging technology to create a community of purpose around reading,, education and love of learning.
The takeaway? Technology is making it easier to create communities or “third places” that aren’t location-specific. Media hubs are an effective way to tell stories and create communities of purpose.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.