Storytelling for Nonprofits

Written by Juliana Torres-Mason

How to tell purpose-driven stories

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Confession: My new favorite indulgence is listening to my daughter spill the tea on her preschool class. 

Her best stories are usually delivered right before I count three kisses on her cheeks and bid her a final good night. 

“Mommy, I have to tell you something!”  

She’s 3, and already she knows that I’m a sucker for stories.  

“Today, we had a NEW GIRL in our class. She wore a pink bow, and I really, REALLY liked it. But… Mommy?” 

Here she pauses. Her eyes peer through her coily, brown curls to make sure my attention is focused.  

“I forget… her… naaame!”  

With a flourish of Shakespearean thespian, she throws her head back and audibly sighs in vexation.  

I have no idea where my Princess Bee went to acting school.  

No joke: She delivers the class attendance report as if she were divulging tattles over juice boxes with her besties.  

“Mommy! Guess who was here today?? Madison, Ava… and… (also!)… KAYLEE!”  

Don’t worry. I’ve changed the names of her classmates to protect them from scandal. 🤫 

For sure, Princess Bee’s storytelling flair did NOT come from me. I’ve worked very hard — over the course of my lifetime — just to take the burden off my PowerPoint and get my voice to the back of the room.  

Despite how much I love listening to my daughter’s tales, her stories lack one key element. 

They have absolutely no substance.  

Princess Bee’s stories are entertaining and hilarious. However, I do not walk out of her bedroom with a new conviction or change of heart.  

And of course, changing hearts SHOULD be a nonprofit’s main purpose in telling stories. If you’ve settled for an entertaining story — even one overflowing with all the drama of Princess Bee — you’ve missed an opportunity.  

So while I can teach you THE BEST storytelling tactics, the first step is define your objective.

Stories are powerful because they SHOW the impact rather than narrate the reasons. But it’s easy to highlight the wrong stories — or the wrong parts of a story. 

Your CEO’s harrowing journey to reach survivors in an earthquake tragedy five years ago is NOT relevant to her current work mentoring underserved girls in her hometown.  

On the other hand… A client tragically losing his battle with addiction might SEEM like a bad choice for the highlight reel.  

However, the way your organization supported his family in the aftermath of heartbreak could be the exact story you need to show your deeply serious commitment to the community.  

So how do you pick the right stories? 

I’ve created a simple exercise to translate the organization’s vision statement into your Story Thesis Statement.

Here’s your prompt:  

The reason we tell stories is… (You fill in the blank!) 

Some examples:  

… to SHOW how our (unique solution) solves a (big community problem).  

… to PROVE our (transformative impact) on (a specific group of people). 

… to MOTIVATE new volunteers who empathize with (a particular problem) to expand our movement through (an exciting effort).  

… to INSPIRE people to donate because they value (something of significance) like we do, and they see the effectiveness of our (innovative approach).  

Your Story Thesis Statement is most powerful when it’s very specific. It’s not enough to say that the stories are hopefully inspiring donations.  

Think about the actual transformation you want to happen before your readers reach the end of the story. Then fill in those above parentheticals with details!  

Once you’ve crafted your Story Thesis Statement, you’ll have a lens through which to evaluate every story idea.  

One final note: a Story Thesis Statement (unlike a vision statement) can change over time as the needs of your community and how you serve changes.  

You don’t need to be married to your thesis. You just have to make sure it’s clear to you when you start crafting the next story. 

The short of it…  

Your Story Thesis Statement gives purpose to the stories you tell, helping you choose which stories fit the narrative… and how to best frame them.  

We’ll get into framing stories another week! 

Until then, email me your Story Thesis Statement ideas and questions. I’d love to give you some feedback! 

Stay curious! 

Juliana Torres-Mason 

~ The Nonprofit Storyteller ~  

(and avid listener of bedtime stalling tactics stories)