How Do You Tell Your Organization’s Story Authentically Online?

Kelsey Gilchrist

How should your organization tell its story?

For the average retail brand or service provider, telling a company’s story is a simple branding exercise–a black-and-white, cause-and-effect story with a straightforward narrative. We saw a need, so we made a product. The end.

But if you lead a social impact organization (read: nonprofit, charity, social enterprise etc.), it’s not an easy question to answer.

Telling your story authentically

To build an authentic, community-focused brand, you need to tell your story. But how you tell it matters.

Who is the centre of the story? How do you share what you do without trivializing the issues you tackle or exploiting the trauma of the people your organization serves? How do you motivate your audience to care– and to take action? If you work in this field, then your marketing team has likely asked these or similar questions.

Every organization is different and each story unique, but there are some common practices and principles for ensuring that you get your story right.

Go beyond branding 101

Endless ink has been spilled on the basics of branding. Defining a brand voice. Creating personas to understand your audience. Building core messages and sticking to them. You’ve heard it all before.

Those pieces–let’s call them branding 101–are important, but they’re missing something. Even if you do everything right, there’s still no guarantee that your branding sufficiently articulates the work you do, or why you do it. If your organization feeds the hungry, helps kids find their voice, connects people with their cultural heritage, or ensures that the most marginalized receive equal treatment under the law, what you do requires more than branding 101; it requires belief, engagement, and a commitment to justice.

You’re not building a brand, you’re building a community. Your organization’s marketing efforts should reflect that distinction.

Keep your purpose at the forefront

One of the most vital things you can do for your marketing team is to remind them why you do what you do and keep it at the forefront, always. In marketing, it can be easy to get detached from the work your organization does. You can get caught up in assets and style guides and content calendars, and before you know it, the words you’re saying might start sounding like those parents in Charlie Brown for how much they register in your mind. 

Fight against that feeling by reminding your team what it is you’re doing, and why. Then, make that raison d’etre the bedrock of your marketing efforts, coming back to it whenever you feel lost or frustrated or tired. By ensuring that your brand remains human, you not only project authenticity, but you keep your marketing team connected to what matters.

Make it human

You are not an amorphic, cold, empty LLC up in a skyscraper somewhere. You’re a group of people trying to get something done–seek justice, offer support, create community. So, you should ensure that your brand reflects the people behind it.

How do you do that? Show those people and share a realistic view of what they do day to day. Give a peek behind the curtain, demystifying what you do in your operations. Share the faces of real people (with permission, of course) and use language that real people use.

Give it the gravity it deserves

If your organization–like many social impact organizations–tackles serious matters, the gravity of that work should be reflected in your marketing. Be aware of the words you use, and ensure that acceptable language is carefully articulated in your style guide. Establish and adhere to strict guidelines about how and when you tell the stories of your clients, participants, or users. These standards should span your entire organization’s operations, far beyond the marketing department. The CEO, IT department, donor engagement team, and the office manager should all be on the same page about how you talk about your work, the language and imagery you use, and why it matters.

Say something real

Social impact organizations fall into the same trap all the time: they get so caught up in getting the words right online that they forget to say anything that matters.

In the era of content marketing and social media, where every executive fears that their content will be picked apart online, it can be tempting to play it safe, using jargon and platitudes in the name of avoiding controversy. Resist that urge.

While it’s vital to choose the right words to talk about the latest headlines, there’s a fine line between being careful and being too safe. Remember, you got into this work because of what you believe. You know what’s right, and you have something to say. You also probably know more about your subject area than most other people–and I’d bet they’d love to hear from your organization about the realities on the ground.

Take a stand. Choose a side. Write with specificity about the topic in which you specialize, and be ready to show your work. My bet is that when you go out on a limb and say something real instead of doing the safe thing, you’ll find more allies than enemies.

Stick to what you know

By the same token, you don’t know everything–and you don’t have to.

Don’t surrender to the narrative that organizations must comment on everything or else become irrelevant. It’s false. Comment on the topics in which your team specializes, and go deep. Commemorate days of recognition that make sense for your organization, and don’t stress about the others. Create content on the topics you know to inform your community. For everything else, it’s fine to sit back, listen, and learn.

Keep it consistent

It can be tempting to shift your messaging and storytelling every time you read a new article about branding or community development or social impact. (And yes, admittedly, this is one of those articles.)

Still, the worst thing you can do, especially as a social impact organization, is to keep changing your marketing strategy to fit trends.

Remember, what you do is not a trend. It shouldn’t be prey to the swings of the market or the latest “it” thing. Some strategic shifts, such as moving into vertical video, or attempting to engage with your audience in new ways on social media, are necessary to stay relevant. But while you should be open to adapting your marketing as practices evolve, it’s critical to keep the core messaging, tone, and story of your brand consistent. If you’re in charge of marketing at your organization, stick to your guns. And if you’re an executive, let your people do what they do without too much interference. In the digital world, it’s consistency, not trendy content, that pays off.

The bottom line

If you run a nonprofit or community organization dedicated to social impact, the storytelling you do online should reflect your mission-driven ideals. For your organization, the way you tell your story is more than marketing; it’s a promise to your community to put your mission above all else.

In practice, that means keeping your messaging accessible and human. It also means giving your work the gravity it deserves and saying something real with your storytelling. And to stay on track, it’s best to stick to what you know and keep your branding consistent.

Bottom line: authentic storytelling matters. In future articles, we’ll talk more about how to create content that tells your story in an authentic way.

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