Non-profits and the Story Wars

Tell great stories or die. That may seem a bit harsh but there are some harsh indicators that the non-profit sector is under siege.
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The king was under attack. He was pinned down with nowhere to go. His land was being overtaken. His people were suffering. He had few resources at his disposal. He was at war. And he was losing. He's being advised to change his approach. To go out and fight the battle head on to which he replies, "I will not risk open war."

The response: "Open war is upon you, whether you risk it or not."

That exchange always gives me chills and it's one of my favourite movie scenes of all time where King Theoden of Rohan is under attack in the Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (the second in the trilogy for all the non-nerds) and Aragorn, a rogue "knight," is the one pleading with him to engage in the battle. So why on earth (or Middle-earth...) am I talking about Lord of the Rings, Aragorn and war? Well maybe I've seen one too many The Hobbit previews but I believe this is a great analogy for the story wars facing those of us in the non-profit sector.

The term "story wars" comes from a book by Jonah Sachs called Winning the Story Wars and he explains it like this:

"The Story Wars are all around us -- they are the battle to be heard in today's overcrowded media marketplace. In the fray, you either tell stories that inspire people to act and share or you get immediately forgotten."

In other words, tell great stories or die.

That may seem a bit harsh but there are some harsh indicators that the non-profit sector is under siege. Take, for example, a recent study by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and Urban Institute that found that for every $100 non-profits raised in 2011, another $100 was lost due to donors not giving or giving less. What's worse, for every 100 donors that were recruited to non-profits another 107 walked out the door. You don't need to be a professional marketer, business strategist or fundraising professor to understand that's simply not good. To know that we, non-profits, are losing the story wars.

And it's such a shame because non-profits are so rich in story. We're founded on story and rooted in story. So how did we get here and what can we do about it?

There are three main reasons why we are losing the story wars right now:

1. There's too many (bad) non-profits. In the U.S. there are now over 1.5 million non-profits to choose from, an increase of 25 percent since 2001. Some of those are quality organizations trying to solve new problems or solve old problems in new, innovative ways. Unfortunately, many are, while well intentioned, mostly self serving and have little to no impact while sucking resources, increasing donor fatigue and damaging trust across the sector. We have too many bad non-profits in existence who don't possess great stories to tell.

2. People don't know what to look for in (good) non-profits. How do you evaluate a "good" or "effective" charity? We tend to look at financials and "overhead" but we're out to lunch! Those numbers do not speak to impact and outcomes at all. Impact and outcomes is the reason nonprofits exist and why donors support them. The stories we are telling donors about what is good, what has impact, what is bad and what doesn't is inaccurate and confusing. It's hard for people to even tell a good nonprofit from a bad one.

3. A lot of boring, uninspiring storytelling (also know as bad storytelling). Where does my money go? What impact does it have? How do I know? These are some of the most common questions donors are asking and they are wanting a great story but what we are giving them is just not good enough. Even organizations that have great stories struggle to tell them well because of resource constraints, lack of expertise and experience.

In summary, there are too many bad stories out there. The stories we are telling about impact and effectiveness suck. And we don't tell inspiring enough stories to move people into action and keep them engaged. That's why we are losing and we have been for a while if we're honest with ourselves but the goodness, lack of knowledge and guilt giving of donors has come to our rescue for years. Businesses are now talking more like we should, there's a rise social businesses, social entrepreneurs, B-Corps and impact investing that are all invading the space that should be a refuge for us. A stronghold of ours for nonprofits. And why? Because they are telling better stories.

Well no more. Let's ride out and meet this head on. Let's tell better stories. Or die.

Let's tell better stories. Let's tell more stories. Tell better looking stories. Tell more authentic stories. Tell more accurate stories. Tell failure stories. Tell success stories. Tell more truthful stories. Tell more supporters stories. Tell more impact stories. Tell more transparent stories. Tell the founding stories. Tell stories that inspire people to act or share.

And the time is now. With one of the largest generations in U.S. history, boomers, moving into retirement and prime giving age (or trying to) and the Millennial generation, the largest in U.S. history, taking their place (or trying to) how we fare in these story wars will shape our future as a sector and the people we seek to serve.

We may not want to risk the story wars but the story wars are upon us, whether we risk it or not.

Here's Five Great People to Follow and Learn More From About Story and the Story Wars
1. Jonah Sachs -- Winning the Story Wars (Book)
2. Michael Margolis -- Storytelling Manifesto (eBook)
3. Katya Andresen -- Katya's Nonprofit Marketing Blog (Blog)
4. Trevor Meier -- Domain 7 (Company Site & Blog)
5. Seth Godin -- All Marketers Are Liars (Book)