A story makes meaning.

If I had a dime for every time I saw “storytelling” mentioned in a nonprofit context, I would be staycationing this summer with a white wine lawn fountain and drone-delivered truffles, and my favorite nonprofits would be returning their PPP money like Shake Shack. Suffice to say, storytelling is a common (and important) topic when it comes to raising money and building a movement.

Story is also at the core of teaching and learning. A story makes meaning. It helps our minds make sense of the world and information being put in front of us. Our brains are programmed to know what happens in a story—setting, protagonist, struggle, resolution—so we have places to put information as we receive it. Creating this kind of order reduces our cognitive overload and increases memory. Whatever we are working on, there is a story that connects the dots.

I rely on story as a teacher and instructional designer. I’m often new to whatever content I’m working on—from liquor law to children experiencing trauma—and so I’m looking for a pattern to help me make sense of vast information. Sleuthing out the story satisfies my Nancy Drew instincts and leads me to ask better questions of the experts I’m working with.

In reflection, I rely on three story arc/narrative devices to craft my stories. (I have yet to use tragedy. That may be a career-ender.)

The Quest

Let’s go on a journey and find awesome knowledge and tools along the way. My favorite example of this is the “Tools for Running a Nonprofit” workshop I developed for Washington Nonprofits. It highlights the beautiful drawings of Margaret “Meps” Schulte. We start where we are and envision a destination… and then we ride on various roads to learn about fundraising, people, boards, and program development.

Overcoming the monster

Our narrative for “how to prepare for a disaster”

Sometimes our hero needs to look danger in the eye and do what needs to be done to avoid destruction. I recently developed a workshop on preparing for disaster for the nonprofit association in Louisiana. Nonprofits in New Orleans certainly navigate danger—natural and viral—and managing risk is something we can help with. Our story charted a road with two options, providing key tools to make sure nonprofits stay on the path to sustainability.

I used a similar pathway concept in refreshing a finance workshop. I took three slide decks, cut them up into slides, arranged them according to where they fit in the story, and rebuilt the slide deck based on our narrative. The result was a reduction in slides and great material for a workbook!


Sometimes our narrative is a metaphor, which is a essentially a short story that draws on a life of knowledge that people bring to learning. A nonprofit law workshop uses a car as a metaphor for a nonprofit (you register with the state, there are extra rules when driving on federal roads, it needs fuel, and people matter). A “how to teach online” workshop uses dance to convey the performance aspects of teaching. An advocacy curriculum uses the construction of a house.

Are you working on a training or curriculum? That’s fantastic! Here are some questions to think about:

  1. If you were to convey your content in story form, what would the story be? Imagine a night-time story book: “Once upon a time, there was a _____, and it _____…”
  2. Who is your hero? In nonprofit work, the hero is the nonprofit, the board, or the staff, not any one individual. (This is a team business!) Make sure people connect at an emotional level with your hero.
  3. Is there a metaphor or simile to describe your content? “Fundraising is like a sunflower. The core is our organization’s excellent work. The petals are the various ways that we can raise money.” Making that up, but when we connect an abstract concept to a concrete thing that we are very familiar with, it gives us a hook to hang information onto.

Stories help us make meaning of the things we don’t know or understand. And a cool thing about teaching or designing with stories in mind is that you let the people you are teaching or engaging do more of the work, thus immerse themselves more in their journey.

This is a concept for the narrative that I am working on now. Any guesses on what story I’m trying to tell?

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

2 thoughts on “A story makes meaning.

  1. Hi Nancy: Love the artwork you have to connect the “story” here. Great article on how storytelling is not only a fun tool; it’ s a necessary tool to use to drive engagement.

    1. Thank you Theresa! You are the master storyteller, so praise from you is an honor. Finding the narrative isn’t extra… it is core!

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