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A Non-Profit’s Most Powerful Marketing Weapon: Its Story

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This is a review of The Non-Profit Narrative by Dan Portnoy. 

Stories make the world go ’round. We all have stories, and we’re all a part of thousands and upon thousands of stories.

We can relate to stories, which is why we read books, watch television, and go to the movies. A great story can draw us in and move us. It can even change us and drive us to action.

That’s the premise behind Dan Portnoy’s new book, The Non-Profit Narrative: How Telling Stories Can Change the World. And it’s the stories that non-profits tell that will make them successful.

Dan, the head honcho of Portnoy Media Group, knows his stuff. He has worked with non-profits and Fortune 500 companies to help them tell their stories. And he understands the rock and a hard place that many non-profits find themselves stuck between. On the one hand, they were created to do great things; to save the world, cure diseases, and change lives. But in order to do that, they need to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money.

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The good news is, you can change this vicious cycle, and Dan knows how. Case in point: A few years ago Dan was part of a team that helped Union Rescue Mission address a $1.8-million shortfall with only 40 days left in their fiscal year. Dan and the others put together a seven channel approach that closed the gap, and then exceeded expectations. Big time. To the tune of raising $3.8 million in just 37 days.

In the Non-Profit Narrative, Dan breaks down the elements that draw us in, and make up a story: the hero, the villain, the inciting incident, and so on, and illustrates in very real ways how every non-profit can identify those elements as they construct and relate their story. He uses examples from literature and film throughout to illustrate the power of story.

I received my review copy from Dan the same day that the first Kony 2012 video was burning up the Internet, and as I read, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the structure of the video, and Portnoy’s prescription for storytelling. Why were so many people drawn to this video? Because they were using all of the elements and literary conventions that Dan understands are so important.

For instance, in Chapter 1: “The Ritual of Story”, Portnoy gives examples to illustrate three guiding principles of building your story:

  • Principle #1 – Build a story that is true
  • Princple #2 – Build a story that resonates
  • Principle #3 – Keep the cookies on the bottom shelf

The first two of those might be self-explanatory. If you want to read more, and learn about principle #3, you can visit Dan’s site and read chapter one for free. If you sign up for his email list, you’ll get a downloadable copy of that same chapter.

Interestingly enough, this book also comes out just as non-profits and businesses are trying to navigate the new storytelling capabilities of the Facebook Timeline. I love the Timeline, and for exactly that reason. Non-profits should take advantage of this new tool to share their history, their victories, and even their defeats. It’s a great way to tell your constituents who you are and what you do.

You may be tempted to read this book in one sitting, and feel free. But I encourage you to then go back and really try to digest it. Underline, highlight, take notes. Each chapter ends with a few “take aways” and “next steps” to help you craft your story.

But here’s my suggestion: If you work for a nonprofit or are on the board of a nonprofit, but this book. In fact, I’m going to suggest to my nonprofit clients that they buy copies of this very affordable book for all of their employees and board members. Then they should read it and work through it together as they craft and tell a great story. It would be a great resource for a one-day or weekend retreat.

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