Nonprofit storytelling holds the collective stories needed for change

Nonprofit organizations stand amid the sea of people facing down life’s challenges. 

The baby who needs a bottle to sleep tight. The dad who made desperate decisions. The wife recovering from a lifetime of trauma. The family that needs rescue after yet another Category 5 hurricane swept their home away. The same-sex couple fighting for parental rights.The trans youth contemplating if their life is worth living. 

The 1.6 million U.S. nonprofit organizations on the frontlines of society collectively carry the best vantage point on how delays in the system and all necessary reforms affect actual people. With the focus shifted from dollars to authentic documentation of the full human experience, nonprofit storytelling could forever change the narrative in the communities they serve.

This year alone, legislators debated – without any resolution – about reproductive rights, gun control, workplace conditions, climate change and aid in foreign wars. The proof, consequences, and impacts of these political decisions — and indecisions — lies within the daily interactions of the more than 11.4 million U.S. nonprofit employees.

The stories unfolding at routine home visits and even summer camps collectively hold the weight to finally move the needle if nonprofits take advantage of age-old storytelling and modern hunger for digital media. 

Real impact lies within the telling of the stories

Photo by amol sonar |

Storytelling is said to go as far back as mankind, as a way to make sense of the world and each other. 

“Stories also allow us to share information in a memorable way, which might have helped our ancestors cooperate and survive,” National Geographic explains. “By telling a story rather than merely reciting dry facts, we remember the details more clearly.”

Nonprofit storytelling isn’t a new concept, either. In fact, it has become a buzzword in the nonprofit world, mostly with a self-serving eye toward fundraising and marketing.

As Dr. Debra Jenkins, Ph.D., an equity consultant at Share the Flame, Jenkins points out, a quick Google search for “storytelling in nonprofits” brings up 12.1 million results. The first three pages are dedicated to storytelling as a marketing tool and fundraising tool. Some mention connecting with the community and “contributing to the cause.”

None of the results on those first few pages speak to the repository of real-life case studies that these stories hold, or how pooling them together could inspire long-lasting political and social change.  

Using storytelling as a means to only spur donations instead of pivotal change, organizations are not only missing the power of many but also misrepresenting the human experiences they are witnessing.

“I heard the way the original stories had been told, but by the time they went to print, each word was manipulated negatively,” wrote 

Jenkins said she volunteered for an organization that published articles in the stakeholder magazine that were tightly edited to highlight despair in the White Savior approach to philanthropy and development. 

“The stories presented those being served as deficit models, and it was presumed that without the donors, this person would never make it in life – which was not true,” Jenkins said. “The people I met were resilient, powerful, proud, and ambitious. However, the only portion told was of their obstacles on the way to where they were.”

Change comes with cameras

Washington, DC, USA – June 23, 2020: A protester takes video of police blocking part of Black Lives Matter Plaza, Lafayette Square, and the statue of Andrew Jackson

The nation learned the power of video-documented evidence in storytelling two years ago when videos of George Floyd’s murder activated the entire world and prompted revisits of how far racism had burrowed both into justice systems and within people themselves. 

Terms like “implicit bias” and “microaggressions” are now common knowledge. The Diversity and Inclusion industry is projected to more than double to $15.4 billion by the year 2026, after companies were forced to update their meaning of inclusion and offer training that more pointedly tackles racism. 

Many of the changes following the 2020 uprisings were aesthetic, with communities undoing the overtly racist symbols in sports names, state flags, and monuments. And still, actionable change resulted from all the footage showing the inhumanity of racism. 

More than half of states enacted new laws related to police reform, more than a dozen cities pledged to redirect police funding to community programs, one federal law incentivizing good policing was passed and three more are still on the table.

Still, accounts don’t have to be riddled with death and hopelessness before the need is blatant. 

What if organizations collected stories before lives were put on the line? What could happen if every single organization that works with police officers told the stories surrounding their aggressive training tactics and how it impacts their perception of the communities they are supposed to protect? What if every organization working with youth told the stories of how changing from one path to another isn’t a straight line? 

It’s now widely known that U.S. police require less training than a licensed hairdresser, with three times as much training on firearms than de-escalation tactics. The statistics spread only after disgraced Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, while his fellow officers allowed it. There were organizations that knew far before then that nearly half of police training environments induce stress.

There were also organizations on the other side of that same story. We now know Floyd was in Minneapolis with his heart set on improving himself and his life, starting with a job at the Salvation Army. 

George Floyd Memorial. Photo by priscilla-gyamfi.

“He was doing whatever it takes to maintain going forward with his life,” said Christopher Harris, Floyd’s lifelong friend.

What could have been the result if organizations told the stories of the hundreds of thousands they talk to? Could those two dozen legislative changes have come earlier?

Not even Obamacare picked up steam until cameras began capturing the lives of children and families during the 2008 campaign and the Let’s Move campaign First Lady Michelle Obama launched two months after the Affordable Care Act was passed in late 2009.

Those cameras captured snapshots into the lives of children and families struggling to maintain a healthy enough lifestyle to leap the tall building standing in their path by way of systemic injustices and limited resources. The Let’s Move campaign also inspired child nutrition legislation that is now cemented in every school district.

Evidence of video-producing change goes even further back to the earliest days of widespread television news. In the 1960s, organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) strategically drew news cameras to the Civil Rights fight.

“The television reporting of neatly dressed college students making a bid to integrate lunch counters while absorbing the hateful assaults of whites wielding baseball bats and chains, cursing and spitting all the while,” recalled Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, former SCLC chief-of-staff, during an interview with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “That began to stir America’s conscience on the moral issue of statute enforced racial segregation.”

To his point, breaking news coverage of Bloody Sunday — the brutal attack on black protesters attempting to cross the Selma bridge in Alabama — propped up support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 later that year.

Digital advances have both the attention and capability to make it happen

And yet, organizations no longer require news crews to document the best and worst moments outside of sterilized legislative chambers. 

Mercy Response volunteers pray for a family whose home was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Taken from the award-winning documentary, “What Mercy Looks Like.”

The media — even if they wanted — can’t possibly document all that is affecting communities today. They probably never could, but newsroom staff is now down 26% from 2008 to 2021.

Technology has placed a camera in everyone’s hands, and editing software is now easier than ever to pick up after a few tries. 

No one had to question what happened to George Floyd, as many attempted to with Rodney King. Floyd’s assault was caught from every angle. His final pleas will forever rattle in the nation’s mind after being broadcast on every digital platform. 

With audiences drawn into the digital world – Pew Research found that 26 percent of adults get their news on YouTube and social media use is up to 72 percent, organizations have dialed into the hunger for relatability to gain attention from volunteers, stakeholders, and donors. 

“As a nonprofit, you have the power to capitalize upon the most impactful and emotive stories in your organization’s history,” one how-to guide suggests. 

And although those donations are absolutely needed in order to pay for programming that changes this generation’s lives, the content could just as easily be a well-crafted documentary that both gains funds for this generation and also inspire legislative improvements for future generations. 

Nonprofits spent $5.8 billion in advertising and promotion in 2020, an upward trend that was expected to increase, according to the 2021 Nonprofit Advertising Benchmark Study by Whole Whale and Cause IQ

While reeling in dollars to keep the lights on is a priority, video equipment and software costs as low as $300, and a professional production crew costs as low as $10,000. 

Or maybe it’s a book project. Or a podcast. The options for format and platform are endless. The sources for content are at every food pantry, toy drive, and welfare check that nonprofits tackle. 

Communities have stories to tell. Stories that can influence legislation, spending decisions, social programs, and even biases. 

“Be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Ghanaian said. 

Nonprofits are being that change. It’s time it’s documented. 

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