Branding for nonprofits: How to tell a story that wins you followers

Branding for nonprofits is not just a fundraising tactic. In fact, it’s not a tactic at all. Branding is a strategy that serves as the compass for your different initiatives.

A strong brand builds your trustworthiness and credibility. And the best way to grow trust and connect people to your nonprofit is through brand storytelling.

Your story creates a connection between your organization and individuals. It invites them to get involved and shape a future narrative.

We’re not just telling a story to entertain. The goal is to tell a story that draws people in and inspires them to share it with their own connections. You want to engage your audience in a powerful way that elicits emotional connection that translates to taking action.

Brand storytelling framework

You may doubt your ability to tell a captivating story. You may even doubt that your nonprofit has a story worth telling. But I say, baloney.

You don’t lack the ability and you’re not without a story. What you’re missing is a framework to weave your nonprofit’s brand into a story that wins you followers.

For this, we’ll turn to Joseph Campbell.

Campbell, a mythological researcher, was best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. Through his studies he discovered a common narrative pattern called the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey provides a foundational framework that can be applied to crafting a captivating brand story that has emotional appeal, is relatable, and will draw people in.

We’ll roughly follow Campbell’s concept to illustrate how you can use the hero’s journey to tell your nonprofit’s brand story. A quick case study on the nonprofit charity:water will provide a concrete example of how to put the framework into action.

Step one: Identify your main character and their trigger

Every story needs a main character or protagonist. This character (or hero) is someone or something that your audience can identify with and have empathy for.

Your main character is likely your founder, but it could also be your nonprofit as a whole, your product, or service.

Once you’ve identified your main character, list out their main personality traits and attributes. These attributes can help you connect with your audience in a humanistic way.

Charity:water’s main character is its founder Scott Harrison. Years of promoting nightclubs and fashion events in New York left him financially successful but spiritually bankrupt.

This tension and frustration was his trigger. Harrison asked himself, “What would the opposite of my life look like?”

He leaned in to the trigger and signed up for an eight-month volunteer position on Mercy Ships: hospital ships that provide free medical service to the world’s poorest nations.

Step two: Address the conflict

Your hero’s conflict doesn’t need to be absolutely gut-wrenching to be inspiring or believable. But without conflict, your story is a lullaby.

Since you’re a nonprofit, the conflict to include in your story is likely found in your mission statement. Your conflict is the issue or problem you are determined to solve.

For Cornerstone Associates, a client of the MAC, the main conflict it addresses are the barriers people with mental and physical disabilities face in becoming integrated into the community.

For Harrison, when he was volunteering with Mercy Ships, he encountered a level of poverty and disease that he didn’t know existed. This experience conflicted with what he believed to be an acceptable standard of living and became the impetus for starting his nonprofit.

When speaking to their followers, charity:water invites people to imagine what life would be like without water. This stirs up an inner conflict with the goal of encouraging people to get involved with the nonprofit’s cause.

Step three: The revelation

The struggle with conflict leads to the eventual revelation that the issue or problem can be addressed.

For your nonprofit’s story, the revelation could be how your founder discovered a solution to a specific problem or how a service you offer addresses a specific need.

When Harrison returned to New York, he was determined to address the medical problems related to inadequate access to clean drinking water.

On his 31st birthday, he launched charity:water by asking for donations of $31 instead of gifts. This first step to addressing the identified problem brought in $15,000 and helped build the nonprofit’s first wells.

For followers of charity:water, they understand how their financial contributions or sweat equity contribute to improved health and quality of life.

Step four: Leading the transformation

This is the part of the story where you show how your nonprofit is solving an issue in a unique way. Through the transformation, you illustrate the value you provide. This transformation invites your followers to to connect with you on an emotional and logical level.

The brand story for charity:water contains two transformations. Harrison was personally transformed, and through his nonprofit he is transforming the lives of others.

Finding your nonprofit’s brand story

Now that you have a foundational framework, get out there and look for your brand stories. Stories are developing every day; you just have to be willing to look.

Look for small, specific stories that bring your brand to life. How did a project help one person? Was a volunteer transformed by working with your nonprofit?

Win followers

By working with the hero’s journey framework and being on constant alert for intriguing stories, you’re well armed to craft a story that solidifies your nonprofit brand in people’s minds and wins you followers.

When you tell a captivating story, you humanize your nonprofit and invite connection. When you strike a chord, your story will inspire people to follow along and actively help you achieve your mission.

This article is also published on Medium.

More Resources

All Resources