Storytelling for Non-profits

Why is story telling important for non-profits and what are the important aspects of good stories that hook and influence people?

Nonprofit storytelling has the potential to hook and influence donors. In this blog we will look into the Rokia story to understand what motivates people to donate and I will also outline the structural elements of good stories.

The Rokia Story

Few graduate students were given $5 each and were divided into two groups. Each group was given one of the stories below. After reading the story, they can decide how much they will contribute of the $5 to the cause.

1) Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children. In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result an estimated three million Zambians face hunger. Four million Angolans – one-third of the population – have been forced to flee their homes. More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

2) Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven year old girl who lives in Mali in Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation. With your support and support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her, and provide her with basic medical care.

The researchers Deborah Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic found that the people who read the first story gave only $1.14, whereas those who read the second one contributed $2.38 which is more than double the sum donated by the first group. When you look at both the stories, the problem is the same:  It is about food shortage in an African Country. But, there is a drastic difference in the amounts donated.

This is a clear indication that well narrated stories which play on the emotions have a far greater impact than data that appeals to the analytical brain. Rokia introduced as a seven year old girl is clearly identifiable and her plight is very much relatable unlike data presented in the first story. The researchers conducted four experiments varying the amount of statistical information provided to the people and noticed that when more statistical information was given, the less generous the audience became. Overall, giving donations is more intuitive than rational and depends on the emotions elicited. So, now, how to build stories that attract donations for your non-profit?

Essentials of Nonprofit Storytelling

The following are two aspects common across all the great stories. Leveraging them to tell the story of your programs, either through videos or while making presentations, will certainly make for a compelling message.

The Structure 

Every good story has:

  1. A hero
  2. His/her conflict
  3. The journey
  4. The resolution

Take Rokia’s story. She is the hero of this story. Introduced as seven year old girl from Africa, she forms a clearly identifiable and relatable image in the minds of audience. Then we move on to the conflict/challenge she’s facing, which is the threat of severe hunger. After establishing the conflict, to take her through the journey towards resolution or rather from hunger to sustenance, the narrative cleverly establishes audience as the lifeline for achieving the resolution thereby making them a part of the story. The story succeeded because it has all the four essential components and also pulls audience into the narrative.

The Pattern

While the structure details on key elements and the order, the pattern is used to engage the audience. Nancy Duarte lists the interesting pattern of ‘What is’ and ‘What could be’ in her book Resonate and I find this to be a simple yet very effective pattern to build engaging stories. The gap between what is and what could be creates that tension which engages audience till they find answers that fill this gap.

When we break down the Rokia story, we see this pattern throughout:

What Is: Rokia is a seven year old girl who is desperately poor and starving.

What could be: When someone tells us about children, we imagine healthy and happy kids. Rokia could be one such pretty child but her being described as desperately poor and starving creates the gap between what is and what could be/what we imagined. The gap creates a need to listen more or look for answers.

To fill this gap Save the Children asks you to (call to action) donate money and projects a healthy and educated girl brimming with life as the bliss or happy end for the story.

A story can have multiple ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ throughout the hero’s journey and these gaps create the tension to engage audience. Then finally place the audience in the position of someone who has the power to resolve the conflict by following the call to action.

Craft compelling stories

Non-profit organizations which leverage storytelling can better influence the donors. By utilizing the structure and pattern of good stories, craft stories that engage audience emotionally to achieve maximum benefits from your next pitch.


Abhishek Reddy M | Deputy Manager Communications


Reference: To Increase Charitable Donations, Appeal to the Heart — Not the Head

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