This is an exciting time to be a content marketer. The digital age is hungry for great content and big brands like Apple, Netflix and Amazon are spending big bucks on original storytelling. Some are even calling it the Golden Age of Content. 

The nonprofit world is no different.  We naturally have amazing stories to tell about lives saved, challenges overcome, heart-breaking sacrifice and huge needs that diverse communities are rallying to meet.

So why is so much of our writing DEAD BORING. I mean it. Snoozeville.

We don’t sell widgets. We don’t offer abstract consulting. We make the world a better place, darn it!!!

That was many more exclamation points than I would normally ever use. But it underscores just how frustrating this topic is for me as someone with journalism experience. 

There are no boring stories

My crusty (but oh so right) journalism professors had a saying: “There are no boring stories, there are just boring writers.”

That was cold comfort as I covered city zoning meetings. But it challenged me to make stories about xeriscaping at least a little interesting for people to read.

That’s your job as a nonprofit storyteller. To get people with less and less free time to read, enjoy and respond to your work. The good news is that they WANT to hear your great stories. They are begging for you to make them cry, laugh, get angry and give them hope.

Know your news values

So, how do you go about doing that?

Understanding news values – the way journalists decide if something is worthy to print – is a great start. Here are 10 common news values and some ideas on how nonprofits can put them to work.  

  • Conflict (tension, surprise): Think crime, injustice, addiction, elections, poverty, having to choose between vet bills for your beloved pet and paying the rent

  • Impact: How many people, animals, volunteers or countries are affected? The more affected, the bigger the story. This is why stories like floods, fires and Facebook data breaches are so big.

  • Progress (triumph, achievement): Someone stays sober for a year, a homeless woman finds a job, a struggling student makes the honor roll, a new program reaches an underserved community.

  • Disaster: Your office floods, drought threatens an endangered species, your delivery truck gets totaled, a vote goes against your cause, a power outage spoils food aid, violence erupts in the community you serve.

  • Consequences: These affect both individuals and communities. A recession hits, a disease spreads, new laws go into effect, taxes increase, school test standards change and families cope with a serious injury or death.

  • Prominence: A celebrity adopts a pet at your shelter, the city council recognizes your work, an actor volunteers at your work site, your team wins a national award, you support a high-profile relief mission.

  • Timeliness: This is spur-of-the-moment news and usually needs another value like impact or conflict to be a story. We ran out of food supplies today and had to turn 300 people away or we lobbied for the legislature to recognize people’s basic human rights.

  • Proximity: These are stories with local appeal. A veteran from your home town reunites with his family after a long deployment. A local student wins a scholarship vs. a student in Taiwan doing the same.

  • Novelty: These are all the little oddities of nonprofit life. A grocer donates 500 pounds of fresh cranberries to your food bank, triplets decide to volunteer at your nonprofit, your researchers discover a two-headed turtle.

  • Human interest:  No one has to hear these stories, but they’re still interesting and help position your brand as positive and hopeful. A volunteer at your hospital turns 100, a student skateboards coast-to-coast to fund cancer research, a young man in a wheelchair zip lines at your camp.

Dull or daring: What's your default?

So with all these possibilities, why do some nonprofit writers default to dull?

I think time constraints have something to do with it. If your boss demands that you post this dense, wordy flyer today, you may just sigh and get it done. Or perhaps your organization doesn’t plan and schedule content in advance. Or maybe telling great stories just seems like a lot of work.

You also have to watch out for navel gazing i.e. losing track of what’s happening in the real world. Normal people don’t talk about how your board of directors had a retreat or that your organization is celebrating its six-and-a-half year birthday. So, don’t write about these things either.  

Instead, use an old reporter tip and get outside your office. Go have coffee or get some sun at a park or bus stop. Listen to what interests real people and I bet you’ll find some new story ideas.  

Telling boring stories is a waste of your time and donor money. Instead, use news values to put pep in your storytelling step. They’ll help you brainstorm new ideas and connect with your audience in a more meaningful way.

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.

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