4 Tips to Add Storytelling to Nonprofit Event Planning

Samantha Swaim
Founder, Swaim Strategies

Every nonprofit event planner wants to create an unforgettable experience for their attendees. However, with over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone, it can be challenging for organizations to stand out with their missions and events. That’s where storytelling comes in—when done correctly, it helps you recruit new supporters, keep existing ones engaged, and create a positive event experience for all your guests.

To help you add your stories successfully to your event planning, we’ll cover four tips to guide you through the process. Let’s get started!

1. Pinpoint what supporters value.

Think back to the books you’ve read and the TV shows and movies you’ve watched. Ask yourself: Did all of the stories resonate with you? Your answer is probably no—you likely enjoyed some of the narratives more than others, based on your preferences and values.

Much like a TV show or book tries to hook in its audience, your nonprofit needs to tell stories that your supporters will resonate with. The first step is to determine what about your nonprofit your audience cares most about.

To do so, ask the following questions:

  • What motivates them to support your nonprofit?
  • Which of your programs and initiatives are they most interested in?
  • What stories or testimonials have they responded well to in the past?
  • How do they prefer to support your cause?
  • What events or activities do they enjoy attending or participating in?

The answers to these questions will give you a solid jumping-off point for establishing what aspects of your nonprofit your audience cares about. Plus, you don’t have to wrack your brains to figure out the answers—instead, WildApricot recommends you send out a survey to your supporters and get their feedback directly.

Aside from helping with storytelling, determining why your audience supports your nonprofit will give you insights to leverage for fundraising. For more information on how to do that, check out resources such as fundraising books or podcasts created by experienced professionals in the sector. Learning from real, past experiences gives you a better idea of how to incorporate fundraising best practices into your strategy.

2. Collect stories.

After pinpointing the types of stories your supporters will be most receptive to, seek out and collect stories of that type. You’ll find your best material from these groups:

  • Beneficiaries. If your audience is motivated to support your nonprofit because they want to make an impact on your beneficiaries, go straight to the source. Ask them for their unique story and how your nonprofit helped them. If your beneficiaries are nonverbal, such as animals or the environment, you can still give their history and how your nonprofit has helped and is helping them.
  • Volunteers. Your nonprofit’s volunteers are undoubtedly some of the most passionate of your supporters, enough to lend their time and effort to your cause. If your audience responds to the idea of community, ask your volunteers for their stories and why they support your nonprofit.
  • Donors. Donors are also a great source of story materials for nonprofits. You can ask them why they’ve chosen to give to your organization as one of your stewardship strategies. Showcase stories from major donors and smaller donors to demonstrate your appreciation for all gifts, no matter their size.
  • Staff members. Stories from your staff members lend credibility to your nonprofit, as they’ll need to be passionate about your cause to want to work for your organization. Tell their stories to show that your mission inspires even those under your employ.

As you collect stories, keep an eye out for those that elicit an emotional response. For example, your supporters may not be as touched by a donor who made a gift solely for a tax deduction. Instead, they may resonate more with the story of someone who is donating their part of their recently deceased father’s estate to fund research into battling the same cancer their father had.

3. Incorporate stories into your event planning.

After you’ve done the legwork to find stories that will resonate with your audience, it’s time to incorporate them into your event planning process. Start by considering the goal of your event. According to Elevate, nonprofits plan events for these primary reasons:

Reasons why nonprofit events are important, detailed in the text below.
  • Awareness and outreach
  • Fundraising
  • Connections and partnerships
  • Stronger relationships

At every step in your event planning process, consider the stories you can include to strengthen these aspects. For example, if you’re hosting an advocacy-focused event, your goal will be to spread awareness of your cause and inspire supporters to do the same. In that case, you may want to tell your beneficiaries’ and volunteers’ stories.

During your event, invite your beneficiaries and volunteers to share their stories directly with the audience. Or, if they don’t feel comfortable with public speaking, you can record a video of them telling their story and share that with attendees. This is particularly useful if you’re hosting a virtual or hybrid event, as this gives your virtual audience media to engage with.

4. Promote your event through stories.

Don’t be afraid to use stories related to your nonprofit in your event marketing materials. When incorporated strategically, these stories will encourage more audience members to sign up and attend your event.

Marketing channels you can incorporate storytelling into include:

  • Website. As your website is a primary resource for individuals interested in learning more about your nonprofit, it’s important to create a site that resonates with them. Include a page dedicated to testimonials or stories filled with quotes from your supporters and beneficiaries.
  • Email newsletters. The benefit of email newsletters is that they are sent regularly, usually weekly or monthly. Incorporate storytelling into them by creating a quotes column or section and adding a new quote from a supporter or beneficiary for every newsletter edition. This will lend your nonprofit credibility, making supporters more likely to engage with your events and donate.
  • Social media. With 91% of businesses using video in their marketing and 92% of video marketers seeing a positive return on investment in their videos, incorporate video storytelling directly into your social media posts. Many platforms have dedicated video features, such as Instagram Reels, allowing you to spread the word about your event and your stories more widely.
  • Direct mail. Although direct mail doesn’t allow for dynamic visual content like your website or emails, you can still incorporate storytelling elements. Instead of videos, add images of your beneficiaries and quotes from them to encourage readers to sign up for your event.

Let’s consider a real-life example of a nonprofit using storytelling in their event marketing communications. Crisis Text Line is a nonprofit that runs a text hotline for individuals experiencing some form of crisis. Their Crisis Counselors staff the hotline and are volunteers who receive training on interacting with texters. Every month, they host a skills refresh for Crisis Counselors to ensure they stay up-to-date on best practices.

At the bottom of the email invite sent for this skills refresh, they include a quote from a previous texter:

A screenshot of the bottom of a Crisis Textline email, with a quote from a texter sharing their positive experience with the nonprofit.

This quote tells the story of a beneficiary successfully helped in their time of need. It’s particularly appropriate for this email, as it encourages previous and current volunteers to sign up for a volunteer training event. By adding the quote, volunteers are reminded of the value of their work and will feel more positively about signing up for the skills refresh event.

There are many different ways you can leverage storytelling for the benefit of your nonprofit and its events. The important thing is to consider your audience and stay open-minded. Storytelling elements can be added almost anywhere—you just need a bit of creativity!

Samantha Swaim
Founder, Swaim Strategies

Samantha Swaim has more than 20 years of event planning and fundraising expertise. She founded Swaim Strategies, a fundraising event consultancy, in 2004, working internationally with nonprofit organizations to produce impactful events that move missions forward. Samantha is the co-author of “Planning a Successful Major Donor Event” and the founder of the annual Elevate fundraising event conference. She travels internationally to teach nonprofit professionals the tools they need to elevate their impact through events.

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