“Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups,” Nicholas Kristof once wrote. Nonprofits and social enterprises, unsurprisingly, struggle to compete with brands that collectively spend billions on marketing. But some have more success. Charity: Water, a nonprofit that has raised more than $260 million for clean drinking water in developing countries since it launched in 2006, uses storytelling to convince its donors to give.
At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Tyler Riewer, brand content lead for Charity: Water–who previously spent eight years working in traditional advertising–shared what he’s learned about storytelling, and why it matters. “It’s one of the things that the nonprofit community is desperately lacking,” Riewer told the crowd. He shared five key lessons.
1: Good stories have more faces than facts
A typical nonprofit pitch focuses on stats–in the case of clean drinking water, you might hear the fact that 663 million people lack access to safe water to drink. But facts aren’t as memorable as stories. Riewer shared an example: Aissa Marou, a woman who lives in Niger, makes trips to a local well six times a day, where she uses handmade rope to collect water, one bucket at a time. One day, as she perched her foot on the edge of the well to pull the bucket up, her baby–held in a carrier on her back–unexpectedly shifted, and both she and the baby fell into the cement well. Her collarbone was broken, but she managed to call for help, asking neighbors to save her baby; they saved both lives. But after Marou recovered, she still had to keep using the well. Her story–and photos–make it easier to understand, and remember, what life without a faucet can be like.
2: Good stories spark your memory
If you live in the U.S., you probably haven’t ever met someone from Adi Etot, Ethiopia, a small community in need of clean drinking water. The Charity: Water website attempts to change that; on a page called “Someone Like You,” you can enter your age and a little about your interests and values, and you’ll virtually meet someone similar from Adi Etot. The nonprofit made similar connections for each attendee of a recent fundraising gala. “That relatability eliminated the distance,” Riewer says.
3: Good stories combine head and heart
When Charity: Water visited a community in Nepal that now has access to clean water, it discovered impressive data at a local clinic. In 2012, before the community had clean water, the clinic treated 6,433 cases of diarrhea; in 2016, that number dropped to just 182. They also heard personal stories, including from a woman named Sanjita, who almost lost her 5-year-old son to dehydration from diarrhea. “It’s that web of stories that makes the logical part more significant,” says Riewer.
4: Good stories give context
On a trip to Cambodia, Riewer met a woman named Kuen Leap who took out a $1,000 loan to line the well in her backyard. Leap only earns around $480 in a year–and because her husband is ill, she is the sole provider for her family. But clean water was so important to her that she was willing to take out the loan. Now, however, she has a new device provided by the organization called a BioSand Filter that purifies her family’s water, so it doesn’t matter if the well is lined. It cost just $65–but telling Leap’s story helps illustrate how much more she values it.
5: Good stories empower people to take action
Each story the nonprofit tells offers a chance for action–whether that’s sharing the story, making a donation, or inspiring a group of friends to donate. “For us, this is largely about focusing on hope rather than guilt,” Riewer says. “We want to give our audience the opportunity to feel powerful rather than powerless. But part of it is also creating intentionality in actions–knowing what action you want someone to take, and giving them the opportunity to take it.”