The Nonprofit Annual Report: How to be a storytelling nonprofit

There’s a lot of talk in nonprofit circles of being a storytelling nonprofit. Everyone seems to agree that being a storytelling nonprofit is a great way to engage funders and supporters, but there isn’t quite so much consensus on how storytelling should happen.

Meanwhile, we’re also gearing up for Annual Report season. You know, that time of year when you sit down and write a lengthy summary of the previous year because you have to, not necessarily because you want to.

Well this year is going to be different. Over the next four weeks, we’ll walk through the steps you need to take to build storytelling into your messaging and cement this year’s Annual Report as your communications cornerstone. First up: becoming a storytelling nonprofit.

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Humans learn and connect through story — whether written word or oral history, humanity’s written and oral stories have much greater longevity than current events. For thousands of years, storytelling has been the foundation of learning and entertainment. It stands to reason, then, that making storytelling an integral part of your nonprofit’s communications will help you truly connect with your audiences.


Guiding readers along on the dramatic arc

From Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end structure to more modern classifications of story type, the art of storytelling has been analyzed to the nth degree.

Gustav Freytag’s pyramid, for example, is considered a classic narrative structure that can be applied to any story. You’ll want to tailor it to meet your needs, of course, but it’s a good place to start for your budding storytelling nonprofit.

Gustav Freytag's pyramid - a narrative tool for the storytelling nonprofit

Gustav Freytag’s pyramid, adapted from Wikipedia.

Exposition — introduce your characters

Every movie starts the same way: business as usual, with characters going about their daily lives without a care in the world. It’s our glimpse into normal life, before things go terribly wrong.

You’ll also want to set the stage for your reader by introducing the characters that are about to tell your story. Perhaps you’re profiling someone impacted by an issue, a decision-maker who has the power to legislate change, a habitat at risk, or even a corporation or group that influences the chain of events. And don’t forget yourself! If this is a story about your organization’s work (and it probably is), then congratulations — you’ve become one of the characters.

Identify who they are and what they want out of life. Do they just want peace and quiet? Are they up for re-election? Even a simple sentence or two will help your reader understand the players and their motivations, which add clarity and richness to the story.

Conflict — what went wrong?

Every story has a problem to solve, whether it’s the pursuit of romance or overcoming adversity. So what is your story’s conflict?

For big-picture stories that describe your organization as a whole, your conflict is generally the problem your organization is trying to solve. Your vision and mission statements are great sources of guidance here.

For stories about individual programs or projects, you’ll want to identify a more specific problem that your work is addressing. In doing this, try think about scale — if you’re simply profiling a homeless man in his search for stability, for example, it may be overkill to explain all of the political conflicts and nuances that affect homelessness in general. Instead, it may be more impactful to describe only his personal experience with conflict; his frustrating interactions with service providers and support systems. You certainly can (and should) talk about the root causes of the man’s frustrations, but as part of a larger story with more players.

Rising action — then what happened?

There’s a problem in our midst… then what? How have your characters responded to the conflict? Have their lives changed as a result? This is the part of the story where you show why the problem is a problem, with all the havoc wreaked as a result.

For your nonprofit storytelling, you’ll want to focus on the elements of the problem most in line with your mission. A nonprofit dedicated to banning single-use plastic bags, for example, would identify the direct and indirect effects of the plastic bag problem on your characters. Anything else, whether it’s related to a different problem or doesn’t affect your characters, should be left out.

This section is also the place to talk about early failed attempts to fix the problem. If the third time ended up being the charm, attempts one and two can go here.

Climax — the turning point

This is the part where our hero swoops in to save the day. How did the problem get fixed? What was the single action that made the biggest difference?

And if the problem was solved through a series of events? Chances are, there was still one event in that series that was pivotal; the one event that changed the tide and showed success was possible.

Falling action — it all comes out in the wash

The climax happened… then what? How did things change as a result of the turning point? Check in with your characters again and paint a picture of what their lives look like now. Have they seen any progress? Are problems solved? This is the part of the story where you show why the solution is a solution, with all the improvements that follow as a result.

Resolution — and they lived happily ever after

The resolution ties up all loose ends and puts a bow on it. It’s also an opportunity to involve your audience in what comes next. Does the problem exist somewhere else too? Does it threaten to come back somehow? What are the next steps in this issue, and — most importantly — how can your audiences help? What is your call to action?


Does your story stay on track?

The playwright Anton Chekhov developed a principle, now known as Chekhov’s gun, which states that if there’s a gun on stage in the first act, it needs to be fired in the second or third act. In other words, everything that’s mentioned should have a direct relationship to the storyline. Every detail should have a purpose, actively helping to emphasize the characters’ situations, not thrown in for fun.


Becoming a storytelling nonprofit

Any time you tell someone about your work, whether it’s through a blog post, live presentation, or Annual Report, try incorporating the narrative arc. Although blending content and composition can be tricky, it pays off with an engaging, memorable story.

Use the checklist below to ensure you hit all the main plot points:

  1. Identify your audience — who exactly are you trying to reach? Be as specific as possible.
  2. Decide your call to action — what’s the point of this story? What do you want your audience to do after reading it? If you’re spurring an audience to action, make sure you know what that action is at the outset.
  3. Frame your story around the call to action — what does your audience need to know so they feel compelled to act?
  4. Follow the dramatic arc — map out your story along the narrative arc, making sure to tell the story at each of the six stages.
  5. Address emotion — emotion is necessary for a good story, but be sure you’re evoking the right one. Emotions like pity, despair, or misplaced anger can alienate audiences and be inappropriate for your characters (i.e. do you want to portray your homeless man as pitiful or full of promise?).
  6. Loop your audience back in — don’t forget your call to action! Make sure it still matches your story, and add any links or other info that will make it easy for them to take action.


Your turn

Who is a good example of a storytelling nonprofit? How have you used a narrative arc in your own stories?


Check out the rest of the Nonprofit Annual Report series:

1 Comment


  1. Great post Andrea. The conflict is essential! Being it a natural disaster or a disease, people need to know that they’re acting for the greater good.

    People will empathize if they know what they’re rallying up against. Being as descriptive as possible by providing as many details as possible will paint the right picture for your future donors.

    Great photography is a must as well! Today it’s all about compelling visuals regardless if it’s just a social media account or a good cause. Focus on the story and try to capture the core of your organization.

    Also, numbers! Do you have some stats you can attach to your mission? What have you accomplished in the past or what are you fighting against? Metrics put the focus on effectiveness giving your donors palpable data that will encourage them to back you up.