Storytelling: Defending this Essential, Yet Often Overlooked Line Item in the Nonprofit Budget

I remember deciding as a sophomore in college that I wanted to work for a nonprofit. Did I really know what that meant? No. Buried under my naivete was a desire to work towards a worthy mission and be part of something bigger than myself. 

My career has evolved greatly in the past eight years, honing in on what I’m most interested in–and though I’m not working at a nonprofit (anymore at least), I think 22-year-old me would be happy to know my work is centered around supporting missions of nonprofits and for profits alike in a crucial, but often overlooked way. 

TealHaus recognizes one of the largest needs in the nonprofit sector is storytelling. Call it marketing, communications, or even development, a critical function of a nonprofit is to tell the story of why an organization is important, what their needs are, and how those needs can be met. 

When an organization prioritizes storytelling, they see positive changes to organization growth, sustainability, mission advancement and more. Unfortunately, though, a typical nonprofit budget may not reflect this truth.

The first nonprofit organization I was ever familiar with was Samaritan’s Purse. As a child, I remember seeing the Operation Christmas Child brochure my mom picked up at church to prepare us to pack boxes full of toys and essential goods for children across the world. Had I not seen those images, it would have made buying toys at Target for someone I’d never meet less exciting. 

Think of an organization you feel a connection to thanks to a video, event you attended, blog you read, or fundraiser you gave to. It was meaningful to you because it likely told an impactful story.

The skill and strategy behind successful audience connection is more than meets the eye. Whether it’s a website, article, newsletter, event, or campaign, there was likely a detailed strategy, team collaboration, and hours of work happening behind the scenes to create that connection. However, marketing budgets are one of the first line items to be reduced or cut altogether in the nonprofit sector. 

According to Prosper Strategies, this is due in part to the IRS, which has failed to provide specific instructions on how nonprofits should account for marketing and communications in their financial filings. The ambiguity here has developed a trend of organizations allocating their marketing and communications expenses to programming and essential functions, leaving little for the strategic promotion and growth of those very programs.

Not to mention, staff of nonprofits are often overworked, wearing multiple hats and focusing on meeting the expectations of their funders, which may or may not be realistic. In my experience with nonprofits, I have seen executive directors, chief operating officers, administrative assistants, and programming staff all wear or share some sort of marketing and communications hat. 

I’ve listened to many of their sentiments:

“I know it’s important, but I always forget about social media.” 

 “I can never remember to take photos at our events.” 

 “I hate writing these blogs, but someone has to do it.” 

I’ve also heard nonprofit leadership and boards insistent on growing programming or increasing funding while raising an eyebrow or cutting marketing budgets for outreach software, staff capacity, and more. We can all agree, though, that in today’s digital world of short attention spans, relying on a Facebook post each week or an annual newsletter to effectively reach your audience simply doesn’t cut it.

According to Stanford Social Innovation Review, this is part of what they bluntly call the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle,” where funders’ unrealistic expectations cause nonprofits to cut ‘overhead costs’ like marketing, which should be considered more direct than overhead. Though the article was written in 2009 in the wake of recession, it remains relevant in today’s climate of a changing economy, “Funders must take the lead in breaking a vicious cycle that is leaving nonprofits so hungry for decent infrastructure that they can barely function as organizations—let alone serve their beneficiaries.”

Oof. 

This is not the case for all organizations, but many nonprofits have a deep need for capacity and skill in the storytelling space. Even organizations that aren’t reliant on traditional fundraising or whose function doesn’t lend itself to heartwarming content benefit greatly from a dedication to clear and consistent communication. 

While it’s true that your nonprofit may not need to be a leader in the digital space (i.e. sharing catchy videos on tiktok coupled with a hip and pricey website) it is true that every nonprofit who relies on fundraising or awareness to fulfill their mission does, in fact, need a plan to consistently and effectively reach their audience–be it funders, clients, board members, or all of the above.

TealHaus has the privilege of working with nonprofits to amplify their mission and reach their audiences. Whether it’s a singular project, a campaign, or an annual marketing strategy, we like to tell our clients, “you do,” “we tell.” 

Our team of writers, designers, and event planners are prepared to give fresh eyes to the hard work nonprofits are doing, taking hours of work off of their plate and crafting and amplifying their message in a way that leads to real results. If you have a story to tell and not enough time or resources to tell it, you’re not alone. Drop us a line to see if TealHaus can be part of the solution for your organization

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