The Four Elements of Community Storytelling

Posted on February 23rd, 2023

Proofpact Partner Katherine Mac Donald

Author: Katherine Mac Donald – Proofpact Partner

1. Inclusion

What does it mean to you when a nonprofit is inclusive of its community?

For one, nonprofits that involve those they serve in their decision-making are inclusive. Nothing about us without us reminds us how many nonprofits launch programs without consulting the communities themselves. Is this even what they need or want? How about asking them?

Nonprofits can also be more inclusive by asking their donors to share their donor stories. By listening to and sharing these stories, donors feel included. They will feel like they are more than a dollar sign to you. This represents a shift from a transactional to a relational approach to fundraising. We often hear from major donors and big-name philanthropists. All donors have a story to share. Ask all donors, no matter the size of their donation, to share their stories, at the right time, and in the right way.

This will build a stronger, more resilient community around your organization.

2. Attention

How can community storytelling or user-generated content help a nonprofit raise awareness and be heard in a digital-first, attention-seeking landscape?

Expressing ourselves and capturing attention is difficult in the current media landscape. Advertisements bombard us daily, fighting for our attention. This includes nonprofits’ calls for support. How can they compete? By using user-generated content through storytelling.

If we look at Youtube ads, there has been a shift toward a user-generated content feel. Many are recorded selfie-style on a smartphone. TikTok is an entire platform dedicated to user-generated video content. According to The New York Times, Generation Z even uses TikTok as a search engine. These two examples show that people are increasingly looking to their peers for information. The perceived authenticity of user-generated content captures their attention more than scripted, self-promotional ads. The trust factor is very important here.

How does a nonprofit deal with this new reality? By collecting user-generated stories from those who have benefitted from their services, donated, or volunteered. Real people, real stories. People want to see and hear unique stories that move them, and that they can empathize with and relate to.

When parents want to teach their children important lessons, they resort to stories. We remember stories from our childhood because they had a captivating narrative that helped us understand the underlying lesson. The same goes for nonprofits. Sharing community stories to spread awareness about their cause is more memorable than rationalized statistics and facts or impersonal brand content.

Now, let’s look at the success rates of different written and video fundraising strategies for nonprofits. According to YouGovAmerica, in-person or face-to-face approaches were the most mentioned sources of donations. Online or televised advertisements were at the bottom of the list. Further, an average acquisition mailing campaign conversion rate is only between 0.5% and 2.5%. Online ads and physical mail are less appealing.

Studies show that 70-93% of communication is nonverbal. Body language, tone, and inflection play a much bigger role than words. If we stimulate more senses, such as through visual and auditory cues, the message is more likely to be received as it was intended. A piece of mail, an ad, or an email doesn’t often incorporate non-verbal components. Compare that to an in-person fundraising campaign. Someone is asking you directly to support a cause they believe in. Their smile and passionate tone are more likely to get the message across than the words they use.

Solution? Incorporate more community-generated video content. Having a real person share their energy and emotions through a video story is a higher level of communication. Video content is king at capturing attention online. It stimulates more of our senses. Look at Instagram reels and stories, and the exploding popularity of TikTok. When someone is in front of us, be it on a street corner, at cash, or speaking to us through a video, it is much easier to be captivated as more of our communications receptors are being stimulated.

3. Reputation & Validation

Why are community stories so beneficial for social proof validation and brand reputation?

As mentioned before, people’s attention is being captured by more authentic content.

If your community supports your mission and programs through their stories, their praise is more valuable than your organization tooting its own horn. Think of how many coffee shops self-proclaim to serve the “Best coffee in the world”. No one is believing that upfront. But, if real people are generating the content, say on social media, claiming the same thing, suddenly, it becomes more believable.

It all comes back to capturing attention through authentic, community-generated content. This leads to social proof validation. Your community stories confirm that your organization is trustworthy and is supported by the community at large. Also, by collecting a wide range of community stories, you will attract a diversity of supporter profiles. Publishing a constantly changing carousel of stories will allow you to build trust and reputation among different segments of your target audience. No one-size-fits-all solicitation here.

4. Action

How do you use community stories to encourage others to take action?

Curated story collections can help motivate different actors to become proactive. Placing them on your donation or volunteer sign-up pages can inspire supporters to take action now.

You can also prompt donors to share their stories on the donation confirmation page. This starts the donor stewardship process immediately and makes the donor experience memorable. Our memory isn’t all that great. Collecting a story right after the action allows you to tap into raw emotion. Donors will be more likely to remember their experience later when a new campaign needs funding.

Having an automated story collection form immediately after the action can also boost engagement rates. Ask donors when they are still engaged in the donation experience. If you wait even a few hours and ask them to share their story in a follow-up email, your response rate will be lower because their peak “donor high” has passed.

Finally, storytelling can inform your internal decision-making. Listening to your community’s stories can help identify service gaps and areas for improvement. “Negative” stories or feedback are not bad. These stories should be used as motivation to take action to set things right. Show your community that you are paying attention to them. Acting, in consequence, will help build trust. 

Overall, storytelling is an excellent way to engage, inspire and build trust in your community.

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