Nonprofit Marketing: How (Not) to Write Success Stories

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Is this story at all familiar to you? [Name] was a [demographic] in [poverty-stricken location] suffering under [particular developmental horror which our NGO tries to solve].

We gave [particular intervention], and her situation has changed for the better!

Now, [Name] is [appropriate adjective].

[Heart-warming quote translated from local language into broken English].

Want to help people like [Name]? You can donate here!

Or not, probably.

Why doesn't this kind of story work?

This story is superficially about our friend [Name], but it’s really about the NGO’s desire for money. The punchline of the whole piece is the donation button. It offers [Name] no role beyond that of ‘featured poor person’, and offers the audience no role beyond their wallet. As such, it is an enormous missed opportunity.

By maximizing the importance of the NGO’s fundraising, this story minimizes the importance of both the participant and the audience.

You are not a 5-year-old.

It feels grabby. The whole thing assumes that the only reason the reader is at the site at all is to give money. This is the approach taken by a greedy 5-year-old towards distant relatives who visit at Christmas. Someone walks in the door and instead of greeting them, the kid yells 'Where's my present?'

This moment of contact could have been a moment where two worlds connect and a relationship grows. Instead it’s a pop-up, a jarring demand: ‘Where’s my present?’

Do better: invite people into your story

As NGO marketers, we're better than this. Our content is a chance to welcome the audience into our work - to invite them not just to give but to care.

If they’re already at your site, they’re curious. Don’t disrespect that curiosity - reward it. Invite people in. Share what you’re doing and why. Give them a reason to feel like they want to stay connected with you.

If you talk about why your work is worthwhile to you, it will become worthwhile to your audience as well. They’ll care. And when people care, they’ll come back, they’ll give, and they’ll recommend you to others - because you’ve given them something to be part of, instead of just demanding they give you stuff.

How to write better success stories

  1. Talk about your motivation. The audience you’re looking for already shares your viewpoint, so talk about it. Why do you do what you do, as an individual and as an organization? Why do people come and work with you? Make your work into a cause, not a request.
  2. Create content that enriches your audience. If people already care about your cause, what you can offer them is deeper understanding. If your content becomes a place which affirms people in their concerns and gives them ways to actively address them, they'll come back, and recommend you to others. Their engagement with your issue will become engagement with you specifically.
  3. Be honest. Talk about your successes, and talk about your failures too. Talk about why you keep going.  People know that nonprofit work isn't easy; don't pretend it's a breeze. Invite them to help with the worthwhile job you're doing.