The benefits of planning stories for your nonprofit organization well in advance

Mar 22, 2024

Planning stories for nonprofit organizations

This article was originally published in February 2020 and updated in March 2024.

What does your nonprofit organization’s storytelling plan look like? Is it documented in a way that you can share with your colleagues? Does it only exist in your head?

Do you have a storytelling plan?

If you’re like many nonprofit communicators, you have no shortage of stories to tell. So, it might feel easier to tackle storytelling on an ad hoc basis, drawing from your well of story ideas as needed. But if this is your approach, you could be missing out on the benefits of taking the long view with story planning.

Six reasons to plan your nonprofit organization’s stories in advance

1. You will tell the right stories.

Have you been sharing “feel good” stories without a clear purpose or call to action? Story development is a resource-intensive process, so this can be a costly mistake. Take the time to select and plan the right stories carefully.

A few years ago, I worked with a client who was very enthusiastic about storytelling and was very good at unearthing story ideas. However, the stories she wanted to develop lacked any clear key messages and calls to action. Of course, I helped her figure out how to align each story with strategic goals and communications objectives, but she should have done this work earlier — when deciding which stories to tell and before making commitments.

By planning your nonprofit’s stories in advance, you will give yourself the space to make important decisions about the goals and objectives they will support and how they can be tailored to make an impact with different stakeholder groups.

2. You’ll be able to tackle story development at a meaningful pace

After you have developed, vetted and documented your list of story ideas, you can group and assign your stories to specific periods in the year. With clarity about which stories to develop at different points in the calendar, the story production process will be less overwhelming.

Having a schedule will help you be more effective when asking colleagues to connect you with people or organizations to feature in your stories. Instead of periodically putting out a general call for story ideas or leads, you can be more specific and proactive about what you need and when.

For example, would you like to use stories to promote your organization’s programs or services? When creating your plan, determine which programs you will promote and when based on key registration or enrollment periods. Then, working backward from the deadline, make a schedule for reaching out to members of your program team who can help you identify your story subjects.

3. You’ll be equipped to make respectful requests of subjects’ time

Scheduling well in advance will enable you to invite potential subjects to participate in your storytelling in a respectful manner. By approaching subjects with reasonable, considerate requests and giving them ample notice, you might increase their willingness to participate. More importantly, it’s simply courteous.

For example, if you’re using storytelling to recognize a valued supporter or community member, the last thing you want to do is subject them to an unnecessarily rushed process. You’ll be asking for interviews, review of your drafts, and perhaps additional background information. Because you’re taking the long view, you’ll be ready to accommodate their schedules and give story subjects long lead times and wiggle room if needed.

4. You’ll have time to work through concerns

I find that some of the most engaged, inspiring and generous community members can also be quite shy about being featured in stories — it can be intimidating. Some participants might need extra help understanding what you mean by storytelling, where the stories will be published, and what’s involved in the process.

Long lead times can give you flexibility and time to get story subjects comfortable with your process (which is a good, relationship-strengthening story process, right?). You’ll be able to address any concerns they may have, make adjustments accordingly, or even postpone the idea until you can meet with them face-to-face. With a well-thought-out plan and a transparent production and publication timeline, you can give your story subjects a better idea of what to expect and when to expect it.

5. You can integrate storytelling into a range of communication tactics.

When you create a long-term plan, you can align your storytelling with your nonprofit’s key activities, events, editorial calendars, publications, campaigns, announcements, milestones, and more. When you’re organized and have a big-picture view, you can use storytelling to boost your communications rather than treat it as a stand-alone tactic.

For example, do you plan to use stories in your annual report? Storytelling can be an effective way to bring your data to life and communicate impact, but annual report production can already be time-consuming and stressful. With a long-term plan, you can proactively pursue story ideas all year, developing them as you go. As each story is completed, you’ll have new content for your blog, newsletter, or other publication. Then, when it’s time to gather stories for your annual report, you can republish full or edited versions, reducing—instead of adding to—your annual report workload.

6. You’ll make better use of the time and resources you invest in story development.

Planning gives you time to budget for story production (including writing, photography and video production) and to think about additional ways you can use your stories. It will help you leverage your budget or staff time for more than a one-time publication.

Let’s say you are working on a story for your organization’s blog. If you plan— and share your plans — you may discover that the same story might be helpful for a colleague in direct mail. Advance planning gives you time to create one version of the story for your website and modify it for the direct mail format within that department’s production schedule. You can even coordinate and publish in both places simultaneously, creating a cohesive feature story or campaign.

Set aside time for story planning.

Have I convinced you to plan out your stories in advance? If you aren’t already doing it, it’s time to start putting story planning before (long before) story development.

Try to plan at least six months of storytelling or possibly one year. If you use longer time horizons, you’ll probably have to re-evaluate and modify your plan, but the framework will help keep you on track. Think about creating your story plan alongside editorial or communications planning, at team retreats or meetings (since you’ll generally need input and cooperation from your colleagues) or at times of the year that are quieter for you.

Any time dedicated to story planning is better than none!

Time saved, effort streamlined, resources leveraged and more effective communications – how can you pass up these benefits of pre-planning stories for your nonprofit organization?

If you’d like my help with storytelling, please see my story strategy or story writing service details and get in touch. Strategic alignment and story planning are embedded in both of these packages.

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