Visual Storytelling For Nonprofits

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Nonprofits strive to make a difference locally, nationally, and globally every day. There are thousands of fantastic organizations around the world striving to help others live a better life, if even in a small way.

Yes, there are thousands of nonprofits out there with a compelling story to tell. Unfortunately, many struggle to find an effective, cost-effective way to tell it. Since most nonprofits and charitable organizations are not in the business of bringing in revenue, they depend on donors and other fundraising resources to operate. This includes funding their marketing and communication activities.

Why does this matter? Well, without a solid and cohesive marketing strategy in place, it can be difficult for nonprofits to attract and retain donors. No doubt many who just read that statement will find themselves nodding their head in agreement. The struggle of fundraising is well known, documented, and experienced by many in this sector. In short, it’s a challenge.

Budgeting and Financial Planning

There are many ways in which nonprofit and for-profit businesses differ. One of those ways is when it comes to budgeting. For-profit enterprises focus on maximizing profits (obviously) in the interest of their owners and shareholders. On the other hand, the budgeting process for nonprofits focuses on keeping costs low, while generating revenue and adhering to their core mission.

The size of the marketing budget is different for these two entities, as well. For-profit companies typically spend between 9%-12% of their overall budget on marketing and advertising. For some companies, that can be as high as 30% or more.

Nonprofits, by comparison, are a diverse group. Budgeting for nonprofits will often include a specific percent allocation to marketing. However, the amount depends greatly on the size of the organization. Some nonprofits allocate 10% of their budget to marketing, while others spend little, if anything at all.

A surprising 19% of nonprofits don’t have a communications budget at all. This can present unique challenges for nonprofits that are looking to improve their communication and marketing efforts but without a specific or regular revenue stream to fund it.

Which isn’t to say that nonprofits never “sell anything.” Far from it. Many nonprofits sell retail items such as clothing, stickers, tote bags, etc., which help fund their core mission. The difference, however, is this is one individual revenue stream that exists as a means to supplement their larger fundraising efforts.

Apple, for example, does not view an iPad as an additional revenue stream to quite the same extent. Sure, it’s an additional product. However, their marketing budget exists to generate sales of this item. By comparison, the nonprofit budget typically does not allocate a large percentage of funds towards generating sales of items.

Funding Sources

Naturally, nonprofits do not derive their funding the same way as for-profit organizations. While for-profit organizations are funded by:

  • Investors
  • Bank loans
  • Sales of goods and services

Nonprofits typically raise money through:

  • Private donations (including crowdfunding)
  • Government grants
  • Corporate sponsorships

A key difference is for-profit companies must pay back loans and investors through their sales. Thankfully, nonprofits are not typically under pressure to repay funds (unless they take out a loan). However, they must sustain their organization through fundraising efforts.

As a result, nonprofits are under immense pressure to expand their reach and increase their funding on a consistent basis. Just as for-profit companies must generate sales consistently, nonprofits need to raise money consistently through their fundraising efforts. They must also justify the use of their funds in their annual report and show how these funds were used.

Remember when we said that it’s hard to pin down an average budget for nonprofits? This is because they vary widely in terms of size and scope. From large, global organizations to individual do-gooders in your own town.

Most nonprofits will devote the vast majority of their budget towards their programs and charitable operations. This again differs from a for-profit company, which will use most of its revenue to generate sales.

As a result, many nonprofits struggle with devoting enough of their annual budget towards getting their message out there. How then, can nonprofits reach those individuals and further their mission without breaking the bank? One way to do this is through visual storytelling, and it’s a powerful tool in your nonprofit marketing toolkit.

What is visual storytelling?

Visual storytelling uses eye-catching images, videos, infographics, and other elements to create an emotional connection with the viewer. A common phrase any first-year marketing student learns is this: “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Simply put, it’s more effective to show your audience a compelling, good story than to tell them about your cause. This is why many nonprofit videos are intentionally created to connect the viewer to the cause on an emotional level.

There’s a reason why Sally Struthers standing in a poor village in Africa raised a ton of awareness and a lot of money. People connected emotionally to what they were seeing.

Visual storytelling for nonprofits takes views on that journey. From the introduction of a character (or often a real person), to understanding the problem. Ultimately, the goal is to demonstrate how your organization is helping to make a difference and how they, the viewers, can help.

You don’t always have to tug at the heartstrings quite the way Sally Struthers did back in 1980s. However, it cannot be denied that this ad campaign serves a perfect example of nonprofit storytelling and has served as a guide for how nonprofits can attract donors and raise money effectively.

Why is visual storytelling important?

Who doesn’t love telling stories? More importantly, who doesn’t love a good story being told to them? Visual storytelling isn’t only important because of the personal connection it creates with the audience, though that’s extremely helpful when it comes securing donations. It’s also important because visuals are more memorable for the audience.

For example, only 10% of people remember a text-based ad after three days have passed. However, when an ad is paired with a visual, that number improves to 65%.

As human beings, we’re just hardwired to understand photos and videos better. Simply put, it sticks with us. Approximately 50% of our brain participates in processing visual information and it does it 60,000 times faster than text.

This explains why a blog or a social media post gets more attention when interesting visuals are included. It also explains why some of our most memorable social media and internet experiences are visual, for example, viral videos, memes, etc.

That isn’t to say a great blog or social media post can’t be effective. They absolutely can be. However, you are enhancing the likelihood of success by pairing it with a compelling visual accompaniment or by repurposing existing content into a more visual form.

Social media is one of the top channels nonprofits use for digital storytelling and it almost solely revolves around visual content. In fact, of the top 500 Facebook posts in 2018, 81.8% included video and 18% included images.

However, it’s not just social media that can benefit from effective storytelling. Visual content can easily be used across many different online channels, including your website, various fundraising websites, embedded into blogs, in presentations, in email marketing, and much more.

Visual storytelling best practices

When spending time online, people look for good stories with which to connect. They’re entertaining, they’re relatable, and everyone loves to see a happy ending. But how can nonprofits convince viewers that they’re part of the happy ending? Make sure these storytelling tips are part of your marketing strategy.

#1 – Start strong

Like any good story, a powerful beginning is key. When dealing with visual storytelling, it’s crucial. The fact is, in the world of online content, you only have a small window of opportunity to grab your audience’s attention. Truthfully, you could have a great, compelling story to tell. However, you need to hook the audience early. When scrolling through videos online, or viewing an ad, viewers want to be engaged quickly. Otherwise, they’ll keep on looking.

So how do we hook them early so they can hear the rest of your great story? A powerful tool to achieve this is by asking your viewer a question. “Do you know how many American children go without food every day?” Your viewer automatically answers that question, whether out loud or to themselves.

By doing so, you’ve quickly engaged viewers and caused them to think. Now, they’re more receptive to your overall message.

#2 – Put the focus on the people

Who does your nonprofit support? Kids? Underserved communities? Animals?  Try making that the focus of your story. People are more willing to engage with a moving story about the people (or pets) you help than a fundraising pitch, which sounds like a sales pitch. This is how those personal and emotional connections are fostered and donors become invested in your mission.

Speaking of emotional connections, people also like to see relatable characters telling stories. Another angle to consider is the story of the people who make everything happen, such as volunteers and all the important work they do every day.

Until now, we’ve been thinking of visual storytelling as a means to raise money. True, many of your nonprofit marketing activities will have this focus. However, sometimes a campaign may be focused on enticing new volunteers to join your cause. To this end, showing the good work being done by your existing team can be a powerful tool that motivates others to get involved.

#3 – Include a wow factor

It’s one thing to commit to using more visual storytelling in your marketing strategy, but it’s another to create content that really packs a punch. These days, anyone with a cellphone can shoot a video, but the production value and quality won’t be enough to connect with your viewers.

You need visual content with a wow factor, something that will grab and hold viewers’ attention. Worried about your budget? Quality videos don’t have to cost a lot. There are easy-to-use tools like that provide stock video footage, music, and a DIY editor – all at an affordable price.

Your organization spends a lot of time, effort, and yes, even money on fulfilling your mission. It’s important to show it off in a way that gives your people the credit they deserve. If you have a success story, tell it! If you’ve built a well in Africa, show it off!

Nonprofits can often be humble enterprises that don’t like to brag. We’re giving you permission to brag in your content. At least a little bit!

#4 – Teach a lesson

We know we need impactful photos or videos of people, but is that enough? Chances are, it’s not. There needs to be a lesson in your story, a message that teaches people what you’re trying to communicate. Not only are you trying to help the population to whom your organization is devoted, we also want to address the underlying concern.

Perhaps your nonprofit is raising money for your local food bank. Perhaps you’re tackling something on a global scale, such as climate change. Sure, a PowerPoint presentation gets all the facts across, but does it really make your audience think? Will it win support?

Probably not, but visual storytelling certainly can. Rather than simply pull at the heartstrings (which can be incredibly impactful), also take the opportunity to make your viewer think about the larger picture.

#5 – Call people to act

Finally, what do you expect people to do after interacting with your content? Volunteer? Donate? This goes back to the question of what your goal is. To raise money? Increase volunteers? These are two of the main focuses of most nonprofit marketing campaigns.

If your campaign is focused on raising money, your resolution should clearly show your viewers how to do so. If you’re trying to gather volunteers, show them how to sign up and get involved! In marketing, this crucial endpiece is known as the “call to action,” or CTA.

Your CTA should provide a clear picture to your audience on what their next steps are.

Successful Visual Storytelling

In the end, successful nonprofit storytelling relies heavily on producing a clear message that connects with viewers on an emotional level and informs them on how they can get involved. Telling a great story can be incredibly effective at building awareness of your organization, as well as soliciting donations.

Ready to create visual content for your nonprofit? Head on over to and get started!

Yael Klass is the Content Lead at, making social media marketing easier through intuitive video creation. She lives and breathes content and creative storytelling in all its forms. When not developing innovative ideas to help global businesses big and small you can find her riding her bike through the streets of Tel Aviv and sipping iced coffee while listening to the latest pop culture podcasts.

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