Good stories are all around us. Through stories, family and friends share their daily lives and experiences, teachers their studies, philosophers their thoughts, novelists their tales, and co-workers their rants. Stories help us understand and remember information by moving us to action, bringing us to tears, and giving us joy. Some can even change our most basic beliefs about people and the world. 

Nonprofits can tell stories to highlight the ways their organization plays a role in improving people’s lives in some way or another. And, whether you’re reading Tolstoy, watching Ratatouille, or listening to a nonprofit share true stories about its people or organization, there are a few basics to good stories. 

What makes a good story work? 

Some stories are stagnant and eventually forgotten. On the other hand, some seem alive, and the stories themselves are transformative. What makes the difference? Not to get too technical, but narrative theorists trace good stories to two factors–attention and transportation. 

It’s no surprise that the first step in telling a good story is getting the attention of your reader–let’s call her Sophie. Attention can be difficult to secure, especially in a digital age when things competing for attention are getting smarter–they can take the form of a phone in Sophie’s pocket, or even a watch on her wrist. 

At its most basic level, transportation is another word for keeping attention. This is where the real change happens, even on a neurological level, according to research. One minute Sophie is reading your story and the next moment she is thrown into it. Her physical body reacts to the story because she begins to resonate with the characters emotionally, even if she has nothing in common with the people and places described. Her brain will release stress hormones, her heart will start beating faster, and she’ll breathe more.  

When you’re a nonprofit storyteller, you aren’t fabricating elaborate plot twists and developing nuanced characters from scratch in the same way that a fiction author does. But there are a few techniques that can be helpful when you’re crafting stories that your brand wants to tell and choosing which parts of these stories to emphasize. 

Tips for Emotional Storytelling


The last time you talked about narrative arcs may have been high school English class. You know–exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and that one French word nobody can remember (denouement). Even though the technical terms aren’t that important, the idea of creating an arc with your story is vital. 

Using this story structure as a map not only makes writing your story easier, but also assures you have all the necessary components to engage your audience

In the exposition, set the scene. Introduce the person or group your story is about–they are the lead in this story. Include interesting details that help Sophie understand your lead! Only after you’ve introduced your hero of the story, introduce a need and how it caused a problem in the rising action. The climax builds the tension slowly by showing all the ways that their need was having an effect on their life. Remember to keep the lead of the story front and center instead of aiming the spotlight at your organization–there will be time for that in the resolution. It’s at this point that you can highlight how the donor (your reader!) and your nonprofit work together to be part of the solution together. The falling action emphasizes the change that takes place. How is your lead’s life different than it was before they found a solution for their problem? In the denouement, you can show how you and your client are better off than if the problem had just been avoided altogether. When Sophie reaches the end of this story, she should be left with something to think about. It’ll look different depending on whether you’re trying to engage with potential donors, find volunteers, or raise awareness for a certain cause. 

There’s no need to over dramatize or fabricate a narrative. Simply find people who’ve been positively impacted by your nonprofit’s work–their stories are worth telling. By following the narrative arc, you can communicate peoples’ stories honestly while also making them engaging and memorable. 

If you’re focusing on telling the story of your organization (rather than those of individual people), show how your community, industry–or, in some cases, the world at large–are different and better because of your nonprofit. 


In mission-driven organizations, it can be easy to present your nonprofit as the hero. But readers like Sophie relate to people, not organizations. If she simply wanted to read about an organization she could find the information she needed with a quick Google search. By using real people’s stories (instead of just facts about your nonprofit), readers like Sophie can resonate on an emotional level with the people in your stories. 

Remember the concept of transportation that we talked about earlier? Following a story can help Sophie feel connected to your character – and, ultimately, your nonprofit. When she resonates with the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of your main character, she’ll be drawn into the story. The physical and neurological changes that come along with that will make her feel even more connected to the characters, even if she has nothing in common with the people and places described. 

It’s easy to start telling a story and then transition to talking all about your organization–especially when you believe in your mission! But make sure to keep the people you are talking about front and center. You don’t have to downplay your organization’s role, but keep in mind that the people you work with are the real heroes of the story. When individuals’ stories are told well, Sophie will naturally want to know more about your organization.


Some stories could be captivating, but the sheer number of words is a turnoff. Keep in mind that pictures or graphics can be just as important as the words you use when you’re telling the story of your nonprofit or the people you work with. Research shows that, three days after hearing information, readers and viewers like Sophie will remember 65% of it if there’s a visual to go along with it (as opposed to only 10% without it). 

New technologies are coming out all the time. With so many options it can be tough to focus on which media to use–photos, film, social media, interactive media, video games, personal assistants, music. And these are only a few of your options! 

If you want to incorporate visuals into your stories, using photos and graphics is a simple way to start. While you’ll want to use high-quality visuals, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a professional photographer or expensive equipment. A lot of nonprofits have also started telling stories through simple videos. As you learn what is most effective with your audience, you can adapt and add new storytelling methods as you grow. 

Stories, no matter what form they take–age-old mythology, classic literature, family traditions, or TikTok reels–will always be told. They change us from the inside out. Through stories we develop empathy and emotional connection,  gain new perspectives, and  enter into experiences that are different from our own. The most powerful stories can even change our behavior or shape the way we see the world. Good storytelling isn’t a psychological hack to get more donations, volunteers, or advocates. Rather, it’s sharing your organization’s mission honestly and in an engaging way, keeping your vision front and center and bringing more people into your mission.