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stories for charities, arts and music organisations

Why stories will help your small charity, music or arts organisation (and a bit of science)

I was inspired to write this blog post by a great article from Michelle Wright of Cause4 and Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy, about how we should do more advocating through stories. We see a lot of ‘Save our music service’, ‘Save our theatre etc’ stories of risk/deficit in the arts and charities. That’s understandable, and they have their place. But they’re far more powerful if they’re balanced with stories and conversations about the difference you make to (individual) people, who they are, and why it matters.

Why are stories so important?

Stories help your work and your brand to come alive for people. Humans have always learned through stories – it’s hard-wired into the way we communicate. We expect the hero and the challenge, the plot and the resolution, because we’ve been hearing them ever since we learned words.

Big brands have used stories for decades to support consumerism, but we’re now moving into another era of storytelling. Rather than using stories to show people what’s missing in their lives, and how buying will solve their problems, storytelling is being used for empowerment and for social good.

As this Science of storytelling infographic shows,  storytelling activates parts of the brain that help us to remember and understand. It’s almost as though we’re experiencing the story for ourselves, because the narrative sparks the actual senses that are involved in the story.

And because stories have an emotional component, people are more likely to listen and respond. In fact, emotions are often the deciding factor. There’s lots of science to back this up.

For example, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they all had something in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, but couldn’t make even the simplest of decisions such as what to eat.

That’s because many decisions have pros and cons on both sides: and without emotion, these people were unable to arrive at a decision. Many other studies have shown that even with what we believe are logical decisions, the point at which we choose is almost always based on emotion.

How can organisations use stories*?

Stories can be useful in all sorts of ways for your organisation. They’re crucial in communicating with your stakeholders. They can say something about your organisation, its mission, vision and values and the impact of what it does. You can tell the stories of your beneficiaries, other stakeholders, or your team. You can use story devices creatively to develop the identity of your organisation and give your brand character. There are some great activities you can do with your team around myths, metaphors and other story devices.

They can help you to evaluate your work and understand the true experiences of beneficiaries. For example, the NHS uses storytelling to understand patient experience (see links below).

And of course, they can be captured and shared in many different ways: for example, in documents, videos, photos, audio clips/podcasts and infographics.

What’s really powerful is when the whole organisation is primed to look out for, capture, and help to share your stories.

Who are your storytellers?

Who are the great storytellers and conversationalists in your organisation? They’re not necessarily the communications people. They may be the people who deliver or experience the work directly – and as a result, are better able to capture your stories and/or talk about them.

They may be people who are great at telling anecdotes, making complex things simple, being creative with ideas and words – or simply, people want to listen to them.

Think about who those people might be, keep a look out for them and talk to them about how they could have a role in sharing your stories. You may unearth some hidden treasures.

* A word about ethics: It’s important that stories are conveyed ethically – for example, if the central character reads her/his story, how would they feel? It’s good practice to ask the person to read and approve their story, even if you aren’t using their real name. And of course you’ll need to get their written, informed consent. CharityComms has some great guidance on all of this – see the further reading below.

Further reading

This 12-minute video featuring storytelling expert Jonah Sachs describes how stories work in modern marketing and how they can help build a better world.

NHS and patient experience storytelling

Storytelling toolkit from Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust

NHS Wales / Public Health Wales 1000 lives plus health improvement programme – storytelling section

CharityComms resources and guidance for storytelling

Show & tell: a best practice guide for portraying beneficiaries

Case study from the Anthony Nolan Trust 

Top tips for strategic storytelling


If you need help with stories/case studies, copywriting and advocacy for your charity or music/arts organisation, find out more in the other areas of this website and get in touch.

Image by yogesh more from Pixabay


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