Social Impact Academy: How to Tell Your Impact Story

Social Impact Academy: How to Tell Your Impact Story

Alison Carlman, Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications at GlobalGiving, joined us for the eighth session of the Social Impact Academy to talk about the power of social impact stories.  The stories you tell don’t only describe the impact you are having (helping you galvanize support), but meaningful narratives can also create impact themselves. See below for a summary of her session about the communicator’s “triple bottom line.”

Session Recording:

Session Summary:

What needs to change in the way we’re telling stories?

Nonprofit communicators often use visuals and stories that are sad or upsetting–those that elicit pity– because they seem to generate more money. Pity-based appeals may help nonprofits raise money in the short-term, but recent research demonstrates that the technique is not sustainable. Constant exposure to depressing images decrease donors’ sense of hope and leads to what some call “compassion fatigue.” Stories that separate “us” (donors) from “them” (people portrayed in their suffering) also perpetuate stereotypes about the people we intend to help.

In the private sector, there’s much talk about the triple bottom line: People, Planet, and Profit. Instead of just focusing on profit, businesses need to consider their impact on the people affected by their work, and their impact on the environment. Alison suggests that nonprofit communicators should also consider a triple bottom line when communicating about impact: Cause, Community, Cash.

  • Cause: the people at the heart of our mission; those we intend to help
  • Community: the nonprofit ecosystem (donors, peers, and long-term public opinion about our cause)
  • Cash: our fundraising goals

So how do we tell stories that promote the triple bottom line? We Listen, Act, Learn, Repeat, to find out what works to promote our cause, our community, and to drive cash (or funding).


Listen to researchers, peers and stakeholders. Have: “No data without stories and no stories without data” (Jennifer Lentfer). Stories provide context for your data and evoke emotion; this is key to driving both connection and action.

How do we tell a good story that “works” for fundraising?

Research: The Stories Worth Telling Report (Julie Dixon) This guide explains how to tell a good story with a focus on five main points.

  1. An Effective Character: Have a single, compelling character that is relatable through memories and shared experiences.
  2. Trajectory: There should be some action told as an experience, a journey, a transformation, or a discovery.
  3. Authenticity: Show a character’s transformation rather than tell about it. Do this by incorporating details and by using the character’s own voice.
  4. Action-oriented Emotions: Convey emotions to motivate donors to act.
  5. A Hook: Capture the audience’s attention immediately to keep them engaged.

How does considering voice “work” to promote our cause?

Research: The Development Element (Jennifer Lentfer) This reference shares insights for creating impactful stories with the correct use of voice.

  1. Show people’s sense of agency: Use stories to root out stereotypes, generalizations, and victimization of those you work with.
  2. Bridge the “us vs. them” divide: Don’t focus on the “otherness” of those in need by portraying how sad their situation is. Create an opportunity for people to connect on a human level without emphasis on pity, guilt, or shame.
  3. Convey the complexity of social change: Invite people to think deeper about the root cause of problems. Emphasis on giving donations as a solution to complex problems gives a false representation of the challenges your communities face.
  4. Portray people with dignity and respect: Those we help should not be portrayed as helpless.
  5. Let people speak for themselves: Do not only hear about the people in need, hear from them.

How do we understand our audience, and what works to build long-term community around our goals?

Research: The Narrative Project (Gates Foundation) This was an effort by major nonprofits to identify narratives that mobilize people to support global development. This study explores the long-term effects of nonprofit communications. It’s an alternative to pity-based appeals. This study was developed by conducting an exhaustive study of nonprofit communications,  conducting focus groups, and online interviews in the US, UK, France and Germany to determine what story lines actually motivate people to become supporters of global development. Main findings:

  • Core Themes in a narrative should be:
    • Independence. The most compelling stories explore how you help people become more self-sufficient and independent.
    • Shared values. Find ways to relate the human experience across cultures by describing shared hopes and values. This creates empathy and understanding.
    • Partnership. Show that the people you help are contributing to your work in a significant way. It is not an us to them operation but a partnership.
  • Supporting theme: Progress. Problems should be presented as solvable tasks.


Test new ideas by gathering data. Use the qualitative and quantitative tools provided in past Academy sessions to make action plans.

How do we test our communications?

  • Use quantitative data to find out what ‘works’ for fundraising.
    • Perform experiments such as A/B Testing to find out what works.
      • Examples: Through experimentation, GlobalGiving has found these methods “work” to drive fundraising.
        • Use photos of one person (or animal) making eye contact, looking hopeful.
        • Use a clear call-to-action, tell supporters to do what you want them to do.
        • Personalize whatever possible, i.e. add the recipient’s name in the opening line.
        • Use a staff person’s name in the send field, recipients tend to open more mail from people rather than organizations.
  • Use qualitative data to find out what ‘works’ for promoting your cause and building community.
    • Get feedback from stakeholders:
      • When you write a story, follow up with a few supporters to see how it made them feel. Ask for adjectives they would use to describe your report. Look for words such as “hopeful, ““inspiring,” or “proud.”
      • Involve the person your story is about. Ask how they feel about how you have portrayed them. Use their own words.


After analyzing data, draw some conclusions about what works for promoting progress to EACH of the three bottom lines:

  • Learn from your experiments to find out what works; don’t just stick to what raises more money.
  • Consider your long-term goals
  • Be willing to change and grow based on what you learn
  • Don’t be afraid to fail!


Growth isn’t a linear path, it is cyclical. Be willing to try things multiple times as you continue to listen, act, and learn.


Q: How do you let people speak for themselves?

Alison: Talk with them. Invite them to tell their own story and use quotes from the interview. Run the content by them to see how they feel about what you have written.

Q: What if we do not have enough data to demonstrate that what we will do will have the impact we expected it to have? This makes it difficult to communicate about impact before we have final results.

Alison: That is the powerful part of stories! If we do not have data yet you can share preliminary data alongside a story. You may not exactly know the number of people your work will affect but you can share the story of one person who has been affected so far. Talk about their small victories after gaining independence. Communicate that your organization is important because you can provide the same experience for more people in the future.

Q: Is there a recommended length for telling a story?

Alison: It depends on the medium. An email is different from a blog or facebook post. Try to stick to about 5 paragraphs or less for Project Reports. If readers have to keep scrolling they tend to stop reading.

Q: How important is the subject line of a report or email?

Alison: Very. The subject line is what gets people to open the email. If you have a service like mailchimp you can do an A/B test with different subject lines. GlobalGiving has more resources about writing emails you can refer to.

Q: I wonder if it would be possible to send and test two versions of a project report.

Alexis: It is on our long-term list of desired tech features. We would love for you to be able to test different subject lines through GlobalGiving but it would require a substantial tech investment. We do have an analytics feature on GlobalGiving’s site on your dashboard under project entry. Although you cannot currently A/B test subject lines, you can compare the analytics of different reports. For example, we have found that subject lines that are more vague get more opens. This method is not as statistically significant, but it can give general ideas.

Q: I assume Facebook posts should be much shorter than blog posts.

Alison: Yes, look into other quick tips about length of Facebook posts and emails etc.

Q: What if you have an individual that is implementing the project tell their own story?

Alison: The work we do transforms all of us, not just those we intend to help. I could easily see a story that would be compelling about someone who works for your organization experiencing their own transformation. However, it is less powerful for someone to talk about how they made an impact on someone else. Try to make the people you are helping the heroes of your stories.

Q: Is it okay to have a picture of the person whose story you are telling?

Alison: Yes, that is ideal as long as you have their permission.

Q: What if your beneficiaries do not wish to have their photos included on the report?

Alison: Definitely do not use a photo if they do not want it used. Perhaps you can work with them to take pictures that they feel proud of. You can also try to find other photos that demonstrate your work.

Alexis: Try to tell a story that people are proud of so that they can be proud to have their photo tied to it.

This post was written by Kennan Howlett, Program Team Intern.

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