4 Challenges for Nonprofit Storytelling and How to Overcome Them

December 6, 2021

By Maryfrances Porter & Alison Nagel

The Short Story on Storytelling

Brent Dykes speaking (program evaluation, impact evaluation, outcome evaluation, nonprofits, nonprofit leaders, fundraising, storytelling with data, impact stories, dataviz)

Brent Dykes

In the business world, storytelling is about taking insights from big data and making people care about it, so they do something. There just isn’t a better book on this than Effective Data Storytelling by Brent Dykes. Dykes focuses on identifying insights – things that surprise you about the data.

Dykes’ book walks us through how to set up a story arch around insights: start by creating a setting and hook, then lay out a couple of insights that lead to a climatic a-ha moment, and finally present solutions and next steps.

The most effective storytelling is a combination of data, narrative, and visuals that draw people in by appealing to their intellectual curiosity and making them relate and care. Dykes points to the brilliant Hans Rosling as a master storyteller. Here’s a worthwhile 4:47 minutes about world health and wealth that shows the power of storytelling with data. While he doesn’t present action steps at the end, we bet you wish he did, because we know he captured your attention!


4 Storytelling Challenges Faced by Nonprofits

Frustrated nonprofit leader because storytelling with data is so hard (program evaluation, impact evaluation, outcome evaluation, nonprofits, nonprofit leaders, fundraising, storytelling with data, impact stories, dataviz)While small- and medium-sized nonprofits are experts at presenting narrative, personal stories that draw people in, they face four challenges with using the storytelling techniques above:

(1) Nonprofits rarely have big data to work with and find insights in. Most nonprofits we work with have between 40 and 400 clients per year.

(2) It’s very hard to measure the ways in which nonprofits are impacting people’s lives. Especially during the time you’re working with people (when collecting data is easiest), how do you measure well-being, promoting inter-generational wealth, personal growth, engagement in school, stable housing, etc.?

(3) Nonprofits don’t have extensive data systems. They often don’t have databases, experts in data analysis and visualization on staff, knowledge about how to use data in day-to-day decision making, etc.

(4) Typical program evaluation simply doesn’t fit the needs of most nonprofits who primarily need data that helps them make day-to-day decisions and talk to funders about the return on their investment.


Empowering Nonprofit Data Systems

When nonprofits are empowered to combine the personal narratives and images with truly actionable data, they are super charged. And, it doesn’t have to be harder than accounting and budget analysis – and it’s just as important.

This isn’t typical program evaluation. This is ImpactStory™: a 3-step strategy that puts masterful storytelling within reach for small- and medium-sized nonprofits. These steps are a guide for laying the foundation, gathering the data and narratives, and combining it all to tell masterful impact stories.

Here’s a sample impact story using some powerful dataviz from our friend Ann K. Emery at Depict Data Studio.

Graphic by Depict Data Studio of the number of free and reduced lunch recipients in a school and a division

Depict Data Studio, Ann K Emery


Students who are well fed do better in school (reference here). We are meeting the local need and providing 200 fresh, local produce snacks to each child in our school.

Lucinda says, I didn’t think I liked cucumbers. Oh my gosh, I love cucumbers! Pickles come from these?!

We Get It

Your work is value driven. Its value lies in the impact of your work on the people served. Let us help you tell your impact story. Reach out, answering questions is our specialty.

Maryfrances and Alison having coffee and talking about ImpactStory (program evaluation, impact evaluation, outcome evaluation, nonprofits, nonprofit leaders, fundraising, storytelling with data, impact stories, dataviz)— Maryfrances & Alison

ImpactStory™ Coaches



ImpactStory™ CoachingNonprofit leader leaning back at her desk. (program evaluation, impact evaluation, outcome evaluation, nonprofits, nonprofit leaders, fundraising, storytelling with data, impact stories, dataviz)

At Partnerships for Strategic Impact®, we focus on coaching, training, and supporting small- and medium-sized nonprofits in telling powerful impact stories.

We are the seasoned program evaluation-program development-data storytelling consultants you need, right in your back pocket. We bring order to the overwhelm of figuring out how to capture and use your impact to move people to action.

This is within reach. Your funders and the people being served deserve to know more about the value your organization delivers. Here’s how to work with us.


Want more? We curate and annotate resources just for small- and medium-sized nonprofits. Check out our Resource Library.

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