The role of your nonprofit’s storytelling *process* in stakeholder relations

Feb 23, 2024

As a nonprofit communicator, you understand the importance of engaging stakeholders through storytelling. But have you considered that how you develop and publish stories can have a powerful impact on your relationships?

After seeing a few too many relationship-damaging fumbles over the years, I want to help you avoid common story process mistakes.

Valuing and building connections with your story subjects

The people you feature in your stories — your story subjects — are probably among your most valued and important stakeholders. Consider some of the people you might feature:

  • A program beneficiary or participant who can share their first-hand knowledge of your organization’s trustworthiness and impact
  • A volunteer who can speak to the rewarding, enjoyable experiences you offer
  • A valued partner who can explain the benefits they derive from aligning and collaborating with you
  • An expert or researcher who can shed light on the evidence that informs your organization’s approaches
  • A successful funding recipient who can attest to the accessibility, transparency, or equitability of your organization’s granting process

Featuring them in your organization’s stories can be a powerful way to build relationships with these valued community members. Your creation and publication process can strengthen your connections and foster trust, helping these stakeholders feel recognized, validated, and engaged with your nonprofit organization. If mishandled, however, your story process can have the opposite effects.

Are there potential relationship-damaging gaps in your storytelling process?

Have you ever noticed your colleagues — in programs, volunteer development, or another department — hesitate to connect you with potential story subjects? They could be apprehensive about aspects of the story development or publication process (based on past experience at your organization or elsewhere), such as:

  • Poor story interviews: A poorly conducted interview that confuses or frustrates the subject or, worse, lacks the tact or empathy required when discussing sensitive personal information.
  • Inconsiderate expectations: Story subjects being asked to accommodate tight or unreasonable timelines or participate in inefficient or overly cumbersome steps.
  • Disrespectful story use: Stories or personal details being used without sufficient communication and permission — or in unethical or inappropriate ways.
  • Wasted time: A story that gets lost in the shuffle or pushed to the back burner mid-project, wasting the story subjects’ time. I’ve seen this happen too often!

Ways to ensure your storytelling process protects and preserves relationships

The good news is that you can easily avoid the process mistakes I’ve listed above. Build a story process that nurtures and strengthens — rather than harms —relationships by addressing the following steps and considerations.

1. Select a writer with story interview skills.

Whether assigning story writing to an internal team member or outsourcing the work, select a writer you can trust to represent your organization. In addition to writing skills, look for proven interview skills that equip your writer to explore and develop stories respectfully and strategically. Remember that some (often, many) of your story subjects need a skilled guide who is experienced in handling sensitive information and story development with tact and care.

2. Communicate your request and process.

When you invite people to participate in your nonprofit’s stories, clearly communicate your request, including the process and expectations. For example, inform your story subjects that you need them to participate in the interview, review and revisions. Provide timelines for these steps and other story development milestones and publication dates. If your plans change or need to be adjusted, communicate those changes.

3. Invite feedback and input.

Yes, your organization’s strategy and communications objectives will shape your story development. But welcome your subjects’ involvement and demonstrate that their perspectives are valued. Create opportunities for collaboration beyond the initial interview by inviting input, suggestions, and feedback on the story drafts.

4. Respect your subject’s time and schedule.

Be respectful and considerate about your requests for your story subject’s time. Once you have laid out and asked participants to meet timelines, you must do the same. Remember that your urgency is not theirs, so don’t allow them to be pulled into last-minute scrambles to meet publication deadlines. Avoid content emergencies by planning your nonprofit’s stories well in advance — with backup plans including evergreen content should you need it.

5. Ensure that your story use is transparent and ethical.

Show your subjects respect and care by clearly communicating how, when and where you’ll publish and use their stories. Be open and transparent about your story plans, and make sure you are empowering, not exploiting or extracting from your story subjects. Ethical storytelling is a big topic beyond the scope of this post, so here are a few helpful articles:

6. Follow through on your commitments – and close the loop.

Don’t leave your story subjects hanging or searching for the result of your collaboration. Once you’ve published and used the story (as you said you would), share the link, printed version or other format. Thank your subjects for participating and invite them to share the story with their network. This step seems obvious, but on many occasions, I’ve needed to remind clients to follow through.

Is your storytelling process strengthening — or damaging — relationships?

How does your storytelling process measure up? Is it building goodwill and engagement as it should? By involving and respecting your story subjects, you’ll create a stronger sense of community and trust in your organization. Make sure you have the right practices in place to strengthen, rather than risk damaging, relationships.

Do you need help developing your nonprofit’s stories? See the details of my story writing package and get in touch if it looks like a fit.

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