Storytelling Is Not a Magic Bullet

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October 2, 2010; Mother Jones


Although this newswire draws on an article from a few years ago, the advice is still good. If anything, the storytelling fad is even more commonly as the answer to everyone’s troubles than it was in 2010.

The big new thing in nonprofit marketing is storytelling: making use of a compelling story or a powerful anecdote about your nonprofit’s mission to inspire clients, stakeholders, and most importantly, donors. By giving your activities a human face, you can spur support that all the facts and figures at your disposal cannot do. Many consultants and trainers have made a big cottage industry out of it.

But “storyteller” Sean Buvala says on his blog that there are limits to the power of storytelling. He says that “your stories must be true and they must be a central focus of your entire organization to work….I know both the power and the illusion of story. One of those illusions is that story always works in every situation.”

He goes on to list ten things storytelling will NOT do for a nonprofit:

  1. Fix difficult management.
  2. Correct a bad promise.
  3. Fix financial misbehavior.
  4. Keep your clients after bad service.
  5. Keep employees who are mistreated.
  6. Make people buy your widget [or donate to your cause].
  7. Force a “viral” anything.
  8. Replace all your other marketing [and fundraising activity].
  9. Survive the “gimmick” mentality.

10. Be free of charge.

Buvala, who has been speaking about and training clients in the use of story since 1986, is the executive director of He concludes, “Story still contains the same power to change lives, connect people and build communities just as it has done throughout history. Having realistic expectations of this tool will help you use story to its full potential.”—Larry Kaplan

  • Renee McGivern

    The feeling of betrayal is greater, in my view, when an organization has sold itself on stories and donors find out later the organization was misleading them or was mismanaged. They have tied their contributions to faces and families.

    “You mean that family in the photo that is living in a hut filled with kerosene fumes is still living like that? I’m outraged!”

    Having said that, responsibility falls on both sides. The organization must be truthful and the donor must look beyond an emotional appeal and hold the organization accountable.

  • Anonymous

    Won’t make people donate to your cause? We see it all the time!

  • Sean Buvala

    You might also like the companion ideas here, too. Your volunteers need to be the storytellers.

    Sad stories work for only so long. Look at the backlash the “breakfast with nana” Cheerios commercial is getting as it’s a manipulative story and presentation. It’s not storytelling.

    If a NPO doesn’t have results to stand on, then the stories will eventually cave in. How long can you keep up the poverty porn? 😀

    -the guy who the “author” thinks is a “storyteller”.

  • Joe

    First of all, Sean is not a “storyteller”. He’s a Storyteller. Secondly, taking his content and wrapping an article around it is just plain cheesy. Writing something means adding some actual insightful content of your own, instead of just regurgitating someone elses stuff, and slapping a tag line on it. Especially since the original content is several years old. Lame.
    Almost as lame as talking about storytelling and showing a picture of someone reading a book to kids. 40’000 years of Oral tradition, and you use a photo of a person reading a book to kids, to represent storytelling in all it’s myriad aspects. Make an effort.