Nonprofit Storytelling: How Research Can Inform A Winning Strategy

Learn from Nonprofit Leader Elizabeth Gowing as she shares how her team used research to develop a compelling nonprofit storytelling strategy.


Learning about the situations of the families of rubbish-pickers in Kosovo started for me in a dark, cramped home where the Krasniqi family welcomed me with delicate glasses of very sweet tea. Hatemja’s tea came with stories of the reality of rubbish-picking and the barriers that prevented her children from getting into school, paired with concerned advice on improving my footwear to prepare for a Balkan winter.

Like many people working in the nonprofit sector, I was driven to this work (in my case, the co-founding of The Ideas Partnership in Kosovo) by a desire to hear, act on, and amplify the voices of people excluded from the mainstream. I met the Krasniqis nearly twelve years ago, and The Ideas Partnership joined GlobalGiving roughly six years later.

Since then, we’ve become the third-largest volunteer organization in Kosovo and work with communities in need in five municipalities. Our biggest projects serve women and girls in rural areas and families from the marginalized Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities. Whether we’re sharing stories through our GlobalGiving reports, posts on our social media, or newsletters to supporters, we have continued to look for ways to hear, act on, and amplify the voices of the individuals we serve that often find themselves excluded from important conversations in and about their own communities.

That’s why it was thought-provoking and deeply disappointing when, a few years ago, we read the findings of the Aid Attitude Tracker report by the Bond research group. The Bond group’s research is carried out by big names—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK government’s Department for International Development, Comic Relief, Oxfam, Save the Children, ONE, and VSO. For this particular report, 8,000 people were surveyed every six months from 2013-2016. During this time, researchers explored the most effective ways to motivate people to give their support (in money, time, or advocacy) to overseas aid. Then, based on the results, they plotted data points of the public’s perceptions of different ‘messengers,’ or storytellers, against the key characteristics they’d identified for a messenger to be effective: warmth and competence.

Understanding the public’s perceptions of our organization’s storytellers is crucial if we want to gain support for our nonprofit’s work. We are always asking the question of whose are the voices that will be most persuasive to our readers and inspire them to give (money, time, or advocacy) to our cause?

The answers the report gave were both surprising and depressing, at first. It showed the answer to effective storytelling is not celebrities (considered by the public to be ‘medium-warm’ and pretty much incompetent), so I stopped dreaming of getting an A-lister to shout out our work in Kosovo to all their Instagram followers. The report also showed that compelling stories don’t rest with activists either, who were generally considered to be cold, as well as incompetent. But the answer is also not what the research calls the ‘recipients’ of our work—the families like Hatemja’s, whose voices we wanted so much to share. According to the Aid Attitude Tracker, they are considered by the public to be both highly incompetent and cold.

The two groups that plotted in the sweet spot, since they were perceived by the public as both warm and competent, were frontline workers and volunteers. So, following the research, these were the voices we would need to amplify if we were to inspire our audiences to support us and the continued growth of our programs. But this did not sit quite right with me. In fact, it sounded like a dangerous invitation to promote a ‘white savior’ narrative.

Bond Attitude Aid Tracker Graph

Bond Attitude Aid Tracker

Since reading that research, my work has been to find ways to do two apparently irreconcilable things—to elevate the voice of the red blob in the bottom left-hand corner which represents Hatemja and her neighbors, whilst also telling stories from the blobs in the top right-hand corner, or the frontline workers and volunteers.

And, contrary to what some may think, I have found that it is possible. I can achieve this ideal by choosing to showcase the work of people who are a part of the communities served by The Ideas Partnership and, at the same time, act as volunteers in supporting, recruiting, and advocating for their neighbors. There are several ways this can work. For example, some individuals are signed up as volunteers with our organization, while others may do the less formal, though equally powerful and important work of networking within their community—like, being the mother who sends her kids to school in a community where only 4% have completed compulsory education or being the advocate for vaccinations in a community where low immunization rates have enabled TB rates to soar and left many children to die from measles.

The Ideas Partnership’s programming offers us even more examples of people from the communities where we work who are also volunteers supporting their neighbors. They might be the young people within our ‘Little Teachers’ and ‘Little Social Workers’ programs, which set aspirations and provide support for youngsters to go into these professions as well as to push back against the factors that lead to early marriage and school drop-out. Others volunteer as part of our innovative bursaries program, which enables adults and young people to attend evening classes to get their high school diploma and receive support for a university degree, under the condition that they give time every week to their community. For instance,

When we supported a young woman who was the only member of her community to practice karate, she ‘paid forward’ the costs we’d covered of travel to competitions by running karate classes for youngsters in her neighborhood.

And, of course, there is our staff. Half of our staff is from the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities we serve. This allows us to tell plenty of inspiring stories of their work on the front line—from our community mediator who works with the schools and families to ensure good attendance for the over 600 children (including Hatemja’s) we have registered for school, to the community health worker who visits every new baby in town and ensures the baby’s mother has access to information about hospital check-ups as well as clean, warm clothes for her child, to the young woman who leads our work to support children with physical disabilities with physiotherapy.

We know there’s more to do—further programs to develop, better ways to capture inspiring stories, and initiatives we want to take on to help members of our community tell their own stories. But, right now, listening to the research has challenged us to be better nonprofit storytellers. And I feel confident that, through sharing our organization’s impact in fresh and engaging ways, we are doing the critical work of ensuring we can continue partnering with our community for years to come.

TL;DR? Research shows that, if you want to gain support for your nonprofit’s work through storytelling, the best messengers are not the ‘recipients’ of your organization’s work, but, instead, volunteers and frontline workers. Given that we want to hear, share, and amplify the voices of the communities we serve, we’ve been able to incorporate the research by finding ways to share the voices of those from our community who fulfill both of these roles.

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Featured Photo: Tips for how to develop a compelling nonprofit storytelling strategy, by GlobalGiving
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