As humans, we tell stories for a range of reasons: to inform, to convince, to create empathy, and to communicate experience. Nonprofits, in particular, rely on telling the story of their impact to raise more money, deliver better services, build deeper donor relationships, and, ultimately, achieve their mission.
In this toolkit, we’ll define impact storytelling in a social good context, explore how to craft an impact story unique to your organization, and recommend the best strategies to share it:
Traditionally, most social-good organizations have failed to move beyond collecting and sharing output data once a year in an annual report. However, your organization’s success is driven by its ability to gather and interpret data accurately in a compelling narrative form.
What Is an Impact Story?
For nonprofits, an impact story is a narrative statement that combines anecdotal and quantitative evidence to help readers understand the changes that resulted directly and indirectly from a project or program.
Generally, impact stories will include information on relevant activities, intended and unintended results, and the degree to which those results can be attributed to the nonprofit’s efforts.
How to Craft a Compelling Impact Story
Before you begin the process of building an impact story, ask yourself (and your team) the following questions:
Who is the audience for this impact story?
What is the purpose of this impact story?
Which platform is this story for?
What is the problem this story will tackle?
What is the solution this story will suggest?
Use your responses to these questions to guide the designing, revising, and sharing of your impact story. Once you’ve developed clear answers, you can move on to the first step of crafting your story.
Step 1: Establish Measures to Determine Success
In order to share your impact, you first need to determine exactly what your impact is. Every government and non-profit organization that embraces a high-performance measurement culture should collect three types of data:
What was done (outputs)
How well it was done (quality)
How participants are better off (outcomes)
Taken together, these data points define your impact. Even the most compelling, personal narrative will seem flimsy and full of speculation without support from clear, intuitive data. As a result, your impact data should form the foundation on which you’ll write your impact story.
Step 2: Humanize the Data
While impact data is the core of your story, many organizations make the mistake of presenting data in a manner that fails to inspire the intended action from the intended audience. In these instances, they’ve either shared too much information and/or shared it in a way that is too complicated or technical. To humanize your data and create a memorable story, take the following actions:
Use concrete, tangible details to increase the likelihood that information will be fully digested and remembered by the stakeholders who consume it.
Hook readers with an anecdotal narrative full of tension, emotion, and conflict, then, support it with metrics.
Share your impact through the lens of an individual’s journey, giving your audience a specific character (a real volunteer, staff member, or constituent) to care about and root for.
Turn your supporters into characters by using “you” language and suggesting the direct and indirect ways they can be involved.
Sharing data alongside personal stories allows decision-makers to humanize the information, which can result in further engagement and action on the part of recipients.
Step 3: Communicate Social Return on Investment
Corporate and government grantmakers, collaboratives, policymakers, foundations, and private donors want to make sound decisions about the stewardship of funds. Donors, big and small, are interested in investing their resources in services that do the most good and have the greatest impact on their communities.
Thus, nonprofits that translate outcomes and personal narratives into return on investment (ROI) are attractive to funders because they communicate specifically what a donor’s financial contribution provides.
For most nonprofits, your ROI will be social rather than financial. For example, a pet shelter might correlate every dollar donated with the number of dogs its organization has rescued and placed in loving homes. By demonstrating the social ROI to funders, you differentiate yourself from similar organizations competing for the same funds.
Step 4: Map Your Impact Data Onto a Traditional Story Structure
Finally, take the work you’ve done in Steps 1 through 3 and shape it according to a traditional story structure. Because people are familiar with this structure, they’ll be more likely to connect with an impact story relayed in this format. Your story structure should include the following elements:
Exposition: Introduce the setting for your impact story (the community where you work), the urgency for telling the story (what’s at stake for your community), and the main “characters” (your real life beneficiaries, staff, donors, and volunteers). Incorporate your client demographic data to clarify exactly who you serve.
Conflict: Describe the problem (the issue your nonprofit is working to address) that your “characters” face. Use your demographic data and baseline outcome measures to help articulate the need your community faces.
Rising Action: In addition to raising the stakes caused by the “conflict” stage, showcase how your nonprofit works and the steps that lead to the impact your team makes. Here, include input and output data as supporting evidence. For example, you might detail the number of volunteers you’ve recruited or the service days scheduled.
Climax: Your climax is the turning point in your impact story, the peak of the action, and the point at which a path to a resolution is realized. You should use your outcomes and impact data to show how the individuals and families you serve are better off as a result of your programs and services.
Falling Action & Resolution: Your resolution should leave your audience with a connection between their emotions and your non-profit organization, as well as steps they can take to support your mission.
To think of this another way, we can roughly divide these elements into a beginning, middle, and end. Although you may be discussing heavy topics, plan to end your impact story on a positive note—pairing individual protagonist successes with your big picture impact data—leaving donors optimistic and inspired to act.
Next Steps: Share Your Impact Story
Writing your impact story is only part of the journey. Once you’ve drafted your story, you need to get it in front of the right eyes. Follow these best practices to share your organization’s impact story:
Define your audiences. Leverage what you know about your target audience to give your content context and tailor it to their interests.
Choose your storytelling channels. From email to social media to direct mail, adjust the length and formality based on the channel you’re using.
Get help from supporters. Enlist your existing supporters to help share your impact story. Even if they can’t offer financial support at this time, they can help share your story and expose your organization to their personal networks.
Create a continuous feedback loop. In order to create a compelling impact story, organizations must communicate with their partners and funders fully and often. High-impact organizations strategically weave data into the fabric of enterprise-wide key messages rather than relying on one type of communication.
Luckily, you don’t have to develop and tell your nonprofit’s impact story alone. There’s technology out there that can help.
For instance, SureImpact is a data collection and reporting platform that connects backbone organizations, partners, funders, collaborators, grant managers, and evaluators with real-time impact data. Our platform was built to help social-good organizations share their data, powerfully illustrate their success, and cast a compelling vision—one that inspires belief in the organization’s ability to fulfill the promise of its stated mission.
Ultimately, if you establish the right outcomes and consistently collect and share data, discovering and communicating your impact story will be a relatively easy task that will pay long-term dividends for your cause.
With this in mind, we’ve developed a collection of free resources to answer your questions and guide you through an impact measurement and storytelling process unique to your organization:
What Is Impact? A Primer on Nonprofit Impact Measurement. Learn more about the role of impact measurement in creating a powerful and relevant impact story.
The Ultimate How-To Guide to Social Impact Assessment. Follow this guide to develop social impact assessment processes for your nonprofit.
Philanthropy’s New Model: Takeaways from the Siemer Institute. In this case study, see how the Siemer Institute used a collaborative impact management model to better measure impact and share their impact story.