Q: The nonprofit organization I work for does lots of good stuff and we’ve been experimenting with different ways of telling our success stories in our newsletters and grant reports.  The thing is, even though we’re really proud of the work we do, whenever we write down our success stories, they don’t seem quite as impressive on paper. Do you have any advice about how to frame our work in a way that’s compelling to people?

A: That’s a great question! It’s funny: nonprofits often wonder why they can’t get their really worthy and wonderful message across to potential donors or even the general public while big corporations have no trouble selling the same people air freshener or a specific brand of trash bags.  But here’s the secret that nobody ever tells you when you go into nonprofit work: it’s all about storytelling.

So, think about the last commercial you saw—say it was trying to sell you laundry detergent.  It might have gone something like this:

1.       A kid is playing in the yard.

2.       The kid falls in a mud puddle.

3.       The kid shame-facedly confronts his mom with his muddy clothes.

4.       Mom looks at the kid sternly.

5.       Mom is in the laundry room, trying a new detergent.

6.       The stain comes out of the kid’s clothes—thank Heavens!

7.       Mom and kid are both happy. They hug.

So this commercial tells a really simple story, but it’s a story, nonetheless.  And most importantly, it has the basic structure of a well-told story. Because what we have with this laundry detergent commercial is a small drama: the kid (the protagonist) is going about his business, he’s confronted with an obstacle (his mother’s wrath), the obstacle is overcome with the help some laundry detergent, everything goes back to normal—maybe even a little better than it was before! For some reason, the human brain loves this structure and we’ve been using it for thousands of years: The Iliad has this same underlying structure and so does whatever movie you saw last weekend.  We use it because it works and because peoples’ brains crave it!

So, here’s the thing: when nonprofits tell stories about their work, much of the time they don’t pay any attention to story structure.  This, of course, isn’t the case when you and I are telling a story to a friend—we feel an obligation to tell an interesting story when our own personal reputation is on the line, right?   And what the laundry detergent company knows that a lot of nonprofits don’t is that stories sell.  They sell products, they sell memberships, they sell grants and major donor contributions and general public attention and support.

So how do you tell a story about the work you do?  Well, start with a case study: one person—the protagonist.  This can be a supporter of your work, someone your organization helped, anybody who’s made a difference to your organization or who you’ve helped in some way.  Tell what their life was like before you helped them, the obstacle(s) that came along and how your organization provided help for them.  Then tell how their life is better now than it was before.

Sound difficult? It is.  That’s why more nonprofits don’t do it!

But the first thing to do is to pick a story and try it out.  HERE are some questions you can use to outline your story. If you can’t answer all the questions, then pick another story!

Thanks to The Goodman Center for providing these questions.  For more information about good storytelling for nonprofits, visit their website at

Good luck and Happy Storytelling!