The Paradox of Social Change Storytelling

Why Are Most Public Interest Stories so Un-Interesting?

Many of our readers work in the nonprofit sector. In my experience, there’s nothing more compelling than storytelling around a cause or issue. Whenever you have someone facing and overcoming big challenges, there’s an interesting story to be told.

Yet, you’re often dealing with taboo topics many are uncomfortable discussing: poverty, domestic violence, inequality, race, illness, etc. There no easy answers, sexy products, or simple solutions for people to buy. It takes a more nuanced (and courageous) approach.

So how can you develop storytelling skills without falling back on tired cliches?

I was recently invited by the Chronicle of Philanthropy to lead a live discussion on Storytelling for Nonprofits. Included below are my own editorial reflections, followed by a transcript from this live web chat attended by hundreds of people.

Some of the questions I answer:

  • Where do you start in creating authentic stories?
  • What tips do you have for helping non-profits whose story is changing from its original mission to let go of the past and start a new story?
  • Is there a difference between stories you might tell to a broad, general audience to build up your support base, and more specific stories you might use in donor reports or proposals?
  • How would a small nonprofit make a seemingly uninteresting service “sexy” and marketable to funders, potential volunteers, and students who are receiving the services?
  • I work for a land conservancy and so much of what we are “selling” is a memory, a sense of place, or an ideal around quality of life. How to tell the story without it getting hokey or predictable?
  • Click here to join the discussion with Chronicles of Philanthropy

    Your goal is to change how people perceive, think, and act around an issue. Unfortunately, the way we’re taught to talk about philanthropic causes is woefully out of date. Inadvertently, many nonprofits perpetuate the same stigmas, labels, and inequalities they are trying to overcome. Shaming people into action just doesn’t work for 2011.

    Social change is really an exercise in framing: helping people relate, care, and connect to something they might otherwise not pay attention to. The goal in nonprofit storytelling is help people discover they are more similar than different from each other. To remind people of what really matters and help them find the invisible lines of connection. When your audience can see themselves in your story, the need to persuade, convince, or sell them on anything disappears.


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  • Simon Hodges

    Hi Folks, this is not currently showing up on my screen, though I’ve tracked it down at philanthropy.com. Would love to see the editorial points. With best wishes, S