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Apr 15

Why your nonprofit story needs tension and emotion

Tension is the element of story-telling you need to communicate well in the midst of your organization’s crisis moment.  Tension draws the audience into the experience…Emotions are an essential part to a master storyteller’s repertoire.

That’s from Dan Portnoy’s newly released book, The Non-Profit Narrative.  I couldn’t agree with Dan more on this point, except in one nuanced way.  Tension and emotion aren’t just necessary when you’re in crisis communication mode.  Tension and emotion are necessary in every story you tell.

All too often when I engage with a potential nonprofit client the first thing they tell me is, our board has mandated that we can only show positive images and tell positive stories.  We’re about inspiring change and improving lives.  We don’t feel it fits with our mission to show the negative.

As Dan shares in his book, and as results from every test (regardless of channel) I’ve ever conducted or seen indicate, in order to inspire donors to action you can’t just tell the good part of the story.

Can you imagine a Disney movie that only told of the positive outcome?  It would go something like this:

There was a girl.  She got the Prince.  They lived happily ever after.

Why would anyone pay to see that movie?  There’s no tension.  No emotion.  Nothing to grip us and pull us into the story.  Nothing to get us personally invested in the characters or their lives.  Disney doesn’t tell stories like this because they know they won’t sell.

The same is true in nonprofit fundraising and communications.  If your stories are all positive, that tells the public (donors and potential donors alike) that you don’t need them.  Why would I give if you’re already successful?  You don’t need my money.  Why should I volunteer?  You look like you’ve got everything taken care of on your own.  Why should I share your story?  It isn’t all that interesting, and I doubt my friends and family would care.

If you’re one of those organizations that prefers only to show the positive outcomes achieved at your organization, you ought to take a hint from Disney (and from Dan Portnoy), and learn to tell a compelling story that incorporates tension and emotions.  It will do wonders for your results!

For more insights on telling your nonprofit’s story, get Dan’s book!

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1 comment

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  1. Bernard Mhotsha

    Dear Adrew Olsen,

    I looked at your Web and articles and they caught my eye with very useful insights and resouces.My intersts is strengtheinig Non-profits in Botswana and other Less Developed Countries in Sub Sahran Africa.I am concerned at the escalation of social problems especially poverty/environment degradation and incapacited Non-profits.

    Therefore,Andrew it occured from browsing your Web that you broadly understand the non profit sector and widely net worked.I thought I would get in touch with you to find out what you could recommend in terms of providing me with information/links/advice and leads to foudations and funders who are intersted in helping Non-profits finacially or in kind- new or struggling in helping vulnerable members of society and poverty/unemployment alleviation.

    Please inbox me and raise any questionsshould you require further clarification.Most NGOs in Africa tend to depend on Governments who themselves also depend on large NGOs.The worst thing is that some NGOs end up closing down not that there is no need but because they have no mangement capacity and funding.In schols it is pathetic becuse they no longer concentrate on their core mandate ot teaching students how to learn but on dealing with many social problems such as abused and neglected children including young offenders.

    Finally,Ithank you in anticipation.

  1. 63 Fatal Fundraising Mistakes to AvoidNonprofit-360 Consulting, LLC

    [...] facts and figures instead of emotion and stories to sell your [...]

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