Nonprofit storytelling—beware of impact stories that don’t link to public policy



You can’t swing a cat these days (I never would) without hitting a storytelling workshop for nonprofits. It’s kind of the new silver bullet for conveying organizational impact.

I’m a big fan of stories, but I’m a little concerned about the approach the nonprofit sector seems to be taking.

What concerns me is the drive to tell episodic stories of individual success without tying them into a larger thematic policy context. Making an emotional connection is essential, but it’s not enough.

Very few of these impact stories reveal underlying causes, or assign responsibility for those causes to policymakers and the citizens who vote for them. This tends to reinforce the dominant American frame of individual rather than societal responsibility for the solution of social problems—a frame that the media has helped create and perpetuate.

By telling stories about their impact on individual lives, nonprofits and foundations may be shooting themselves in the foot with that silver bullet. Such storytelling can garner dollars and support (no small thing, I realize), but it doesn’t necessarily lead to social change. Nonprofits have to get more intentional about using impact stories to achieve both their short-term survival goals and their long-term social change goals.

Often, annual reports, newsletters, web sites, or videos that string together emotionally evocative stories about how a nonprofit has helped a few of its beneficiaries are fashioned for fund-raising. They pluck heartstrings, but don’t connect those people’s situations to the larger context of public decision making. In fact, they can leave readers and viewers with the impression that solutions to social problems are up to individuals and nonprofits, rather than to the public.

For instance, a nonprofit tells a moving impact story about a troubled youth who’s turned her life around. The nonprofit may get a temporary boost from that, but the story does nothing to show the larger context that led to her troubles or to explain how citizens acting together can eliminate the obstacles she faced. It’s all about her success at bettering herself and the organization’s role in those efforts. There’s no societal accountability built in.

Without tying stories of individuals to our collective responsibility for the policies and systems that have shaped their lives—we’re unintentionally reinforcing the notion that their troubles were their own doing. At the same time, we’re preventing audience members from making the connection between themselves and the people in the story. They may feel momentary sympathy and admiration for the story’s protagonist, but they are still just consumers of the story, not participants in it. We need to help citizens understand they play an influential role in any story about social issues.

The news media are notorious for gobbling up episodic stories about individuals. Media relations experts may tell you that’s the way to get headlines, but it’s not the way to change society. Most news stories strip away context to a point where the goal is provoking a superficial emotional response, certainly not empowering citizens to take action against injustice.

Here are a few broad-stroke examples of how news (and advertising) use individual responsibility frames in their storytelling.

  1. Though study after study shows that public policies and systems are a huge influence in the American obesity problem, public discussion about this issue still focuses on dieting and self-restraint as the solution. If someone’s overweight—it’s their own fault and their responsibility to change.
  2. In the environmental realm, much more attention is paid to how we should each change our individual behavior than to how we can collectively make big  policy changes that would have much deeper impact.
  3. In health care, the emphasis is on individuals making sure they get tested for disease rather than targeting the causes of those diseases through public policy change.

The last thing the nonprofit sector should be doing is feeding the media episodic stories—that’s counterproductive to its long-term goals for social change. It’s easy to jump on the impact storytelling bandwagon—especially when you’re hard pressed for funding. But think carefully about the real story you’re trying to tell. Don’t let it just be about one person’s struggle or one family’s success or one neighborhood’s make-over. Ensure citizens understand their role in righting wrongs and exactly what actions they need to take.

One way is to tell the individual’s story first—grabbing the reader’s attention—then concisely explain who’s responsible for creating these conditions, what the potential solutions are, and how the public can drive toward those solutions. Weave in a compelling statistic or two—appeal to both sides of the brain.

Please read this recent interview with Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and the author of Is Anyone Responsible, on the difference between episodic and thematic stories and how they influence citizen understanding of public issues. Remember his remarks when you’re writing web copy, news releases, video scripts, and anything else where you feature stories.

I’m going to be covering other aspects of issue framing for nonprofits and foundations in future posts.

CC photo credit: armadillo444



10 Responses to “Nonprofit storytelling—beware of impact stories that don’t link to public policy”

  1. Dan Bassill Says:

    Good advise. I host a library of information related to poverty and poor schools in Chicago and whenever I tell the story, I’m focusing on why tutor/mentor programs are needed, the many ways volunteers and donors and business partners can help kids to careers, and the many places in the city where these types of programs are needed. The maps we host at illustrate these ideas, and are available for any other tutor/mentor program to incorporate in their own story telling.

    The challenge that you present is one of non profit capacity. Not many organizations have writers who are able to capture the stories of their organizations and communicate them regularly as public education and advocacy. Furthermore, not many are talented enough to focus the story on the bigger picture. Some organizations may not even have a “bigger picture” in their own strategies.

    Thus, when I write, I’m aiming for third party volunteers or partners who can fill a role that many non profits cannot fill on their own. For instance, students in high school or college writing and journalism classes could be telling the stories of non profits, in the way you describe, as part of their own efforts to learn writing and communication skills.

    So could student in business classes. Others could be building web sites, and blogs for non profits, or creating the type of maps and visualizations that I show at

    If we can recruit more of these third-party stakeholders we might be able to do more effective story telling, and more effective programming, in more places.

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    Important! This idea adds the depth I was missing from the (really good) presentations by leading Nonprofit Story Telling people. Glad you said it.

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