1. Storytelling is the best way to present a business or nonprofit.
  2. Always place the audience in the center of the story.
  3. Every for-profit and nonprofit is in the wish-fulfilling business. Know what the audience wishes for and wants, and then show how the entity is uniquely equipped to help fulfill that.
  4. Spend time clarifying brand and the entity’s story will lead to success.

Who doesn’t love a great story? The complex characters, engaging plot, drama, tension and, finally, the memorable outcome.

And like a page-turning novel or an Academy-award winning movie, storytelling in the business world can be powerful — influencing how consumers make decisions and persuade others. Storytelling is as old as business itself, and has been adopted and used with great success in recent history by iconic brands. Their stories help consumers understand their business, create brand loyalty and “stickiness,” and drive sales.

Business Insider says Steve Jobs was a great marketer for Apple because he was great storyteller who used the structure of great movies to make his pitch. “The Mac story played itself out on stage just like a hit movie, complete with heroes, villains, props and surprises.” Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign brought us stories of everyday people — regardless of age, gender or physical fitness level — who did not give up. Today, “Just Do It” has its own Wikipedia page. Patagonia, a certified benefit corporation, shines — especially online with videos to underscore its efforts to protect the planet.

It’s time for nonprofit entities to learn from the for-profits, particularly those with consumer products, and dive headlong into storytelling. Good nonprofit storytelling needs to speak to the head and the heart as it seeks to provide impact for the community. The head is that which provides numbers and details about the positive impact in the community. It is structured from an analytical viewpoint. Speaking to the heart are stories on lives touched and the humanizing or personalizing impact that emerge through real stories.

How can nonprofit leaders be convinced to embrace storytelling?

Park Howell, who is known as “The world’s most industrious storyteller,” doesn’t seek to convince clients but rather helps them realize the impact of storytelling and teaches them to story-tell. He is the author of a new book, Brand BeWitchery: How to Wield the Story Cycle System to CraftSpellbinding Stories for Your Brand.

Phoenix-based Howell says storytelling is primal — homo sapiens are the only beings in the universe that think in stories. That’s why stories are so unbelievably powerful: They are embedded in us. But, Howell says, our logical and rational brain gets in the way. In business, we always lead with the data — and we shouldn’t. Data is part of the equation, but consumers buy with their hearts and justify the purchase with their heads.

Learning from the for-profit sector, especially the consumer product sector, means nonprofits should be thinking strategically and competing with other brands and individuals to get their story out. One example is Airbnb, which Howell says has “completely bought into storytelling.” Its YouTube channel touts “New videos every week about sharing homes and sharing experiences all around the world.”

As Howell puts it, nonprofits absolutely have to think like for-profits. If they’re not making money, they’re not helping anyone. There are too many good causes to go around; the nonprofit leader has to think like a strategic businessperson.

One nonprofit leader who lives that strategy is Lisa Dancsok, chief brand and impact officer for the Arizona Community Foundation, who says she is a storyteller — every day.

The architect behind the wonderfully creative and successful Pure Michigan advertising campaign to attract tourism and business, launched in 2008 and continuing today, Dancsok says she has used storytelling throughout her career. Conducting campaigns for both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations, and now at the Foundation (take a look at its annual report for great storytelling), she knows the skills that storytelling and branding bring to the table are the same across all entities. Having the discipline to do it and do it well is what brings success.

Businesses that are successful are those that can connect with clients, customers or their community in a powerful way. Those are businesses that people support. Dancsok points to the example of TOMS shoes, a business and social movement built on the promise that for every pair sold, they would donate a pair of shoes to someone in need. “They can put a face to the people who are getting those shoes,” she says. “That’s successful storytelling.”

Nonprofits must pay attention to building a strong brand identity — just as TOMS has. If a business can do it, a nonprofit can, too. When a nonprofit clearly articulates who they are through their brand and their stories, they can be successful both in fundraising and the programs they’re able to generate.


Storytelling is a tool to reinforce the brand, create customer loyalty and stickiness, and then get people to be loyal to the nonprofit, invest in the nonprofit and become advocates for it.

Richard Tollefson is founder and president at The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists. phoenixphilanthropy.com

December 2020