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

by Ken Mueller on April 12, 2012 · 45 comments

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book image A Non Profits Most Powerful Marketing Weapon: Its StoryThis is a review of The Non-Profit Narrative by Dan Portnoy. Check at the end to find out how you can enter to  win an autographed copy of the book.

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.

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.

Now here’s your chance to win an autographed copy of the book, thanks to Dan’s generosity. All you have to do is leave a comment below. Tell me about your favorite non-profit. Or perhaps tell me about a non-profit that is using social media in interesting ways to tell their story. Everyone who comments will be entered to win, and I’ll randomly choose a winner next Wednesday (4/18) at noon.

 A Non Profits Most Powerful Marketing Weapon: Its Story

I'm currently a year long volunteer for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, working in marketing & communications. We are currently working on telling the story of refugees, through multiple mediums, revolving around infographics and more traditional documentary style video. It is a very exciting thing to be able to use my media expertise for the social good and sharing the stories of those who are so often overlooked. I look forward to work every day!

Sventiments like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I've never seen anything more inspirational than the 58 campaign - it combines 1) a belief that poverty can and should end, 2) due diligence to select world class organizations, 3) unprecendented coordination between nonprofits and 4) great storytelling through the 58 film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uZV90fsoCY&feature=related.  This is what the Christian church should be known for. 

claygirlsings like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

It's a toss up between Help-Portrait taking/giving portraits for people who would otherwise not be able to afford them (http://help-portrait.com/) and Camp CUMCITO which takes low-income children from the inner-city of Kansas City out to the country for a week of a camp (http://www.cityunionmission.org/services/camp-cumcito-city-union-missons-camp-ozarks). 

jenmayzie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Tiny Toones Cambodia in Phnom Penh is a favorite of mine. They work with street kids using hip-hop elements and the creative arts to infuse positivity and encourage mentorship for those who need a safe place to belong. They even gave me the chance to teach a photography class for a month with their youth. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Check them out at: www.tinytoones.org


I like the idea of this book--each non-profit has a narrative at its core. How to find that, and use it effectively in all media channels is helpful input. I also like the reference to how to use FaceBook timeline to share parts of the narrative.

At James Patterson's ReadKiddoRead.com, we are trying to help parents understand the importance of getting their kids into reading for fun--it's their job, not the school's to do this. We offer great suggestions for page turners they will gobble up. We need more parents to share their victories and suggestions, and defeats too, on Facebook.

Nicole Copeland
Nicole Copeland like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I sit on the board and chair the annual Have a Heart Gala for The United Methodist Home for Children in Central PA..  We are working on revamping the website and preparing to launch an online presence with social media.  Additionally we are moving our gala auction online.  I am carving out some time to read the first chapter today because I know that UMHC's storytelling is paramount for community engagement and financial support.  Thanks for this relevant post.

Doug Robertson
Doug Robertson like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm helping a Native American with his ministry(501c3) to homeless in his local area. He goes to the local recycling center to find scrap lumber to use for building shelters for the 26+ homeless men, women, and kids that land on his doorstep. His financial support comes from his fireworks sales once or twice a year. Few local groups know about his ministry, which is chock full of success stories. A remarkable anomaly in the countless efforts to end homelessness. I'm trying to help him get his message out, so articles and posts like yours help me help him. Thanks.

rspykstra like.author.displayName 1 Like

Thanks for the review.  I love stories and Veritas Academy has a great story of impacting students to engage their culture and others and their ideas with respect, reason and kindness.  Thanks again for the review I look forward to reading it.

KenMueller moderator

 @rspykstra I hope you do read it, whether you win or not. I've really enjoyed it, and I bet it would be a great book for the Veritas staff to work through as a group!

adamhann like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great review. Sounds like an interesting book. Favorite non-profit... (I guess I can't pick the one I work for :) ) I'm a big fan of World Vision and how they work in other countries. Also, there are a lot of great churches out there that do amazing jobs at impacting their communities. 

chepec like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great Blog as usually.  Ken you are always spot on.  My favorite non-profit is World Surgical Foundation.  I am working hard to 'tell the story' and appreciate your guidance.  Think I'll have to read this book!!  thanks ken!  Cheryl

KenMueller moderator

 @chepec Thanks, Cheryl. I think WSF could really do a bang up job with the concept of story telling, and you've barely scratched the surface. So much more that can be done.

jlobos like.author.displayName 1 Like

Nice post -- thanks for the information Ken.  I think we could have some fun reading this book here at Willow Valley RC.

KenMueller moderator

 @jlobos Thanks, Judy, and I agree. I think storytelling is crucial for Willow Valley.

jbairy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hubby & I are involved with 18 South Youth Center in Red Lion, Pa. Volunteers spend time with street kids and show them that they're valuable and loved by them and by Christ. It is my new favorite local missions group. Would love a copy of this book as I begin to help the center with its fundraising efforts as it dreams of providing skate parks, housing, etc., for area youth.

RachelJohnson1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This looks good! House of His Creation has an awesome story that we are always looking to present in better ways.

www.hohc.org (but you knew that)

meghan5580 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Thanks for sharing Ken! I work with New Hope for Neighborhood Renewal (the community development arm of New Hope Church) which works diligently to make our are of Pittsburgh's inner-city North Side a better place to live. You can check us out on facebook here http://www.facebook.com/NewHopeNeighbor or the Cafe that we opened in an old bar here http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Caf%C3%A9-n-Creamery/118940121485698

KenMueller moderator

 @meghan5580 Thanks for stopping by, Meghan. Great to hear about your project. I'll be sure to check it out. I know that area pretty well. 

guenybird like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Ken, thanks for sharing about this book, looks like an important read.  I am grateful to have enjoyed a career working for organizations with strong narratives.  From Eastern Mennonite University to Mennonite Central Committee to Landis Communities, I have gravitated to places where the narrative is recognized as very important!

KenMueller moderator

 @guenybird Those are some great organizations, and I have done some work with MCC as well. I know that they do a great job of sharing stories as a way of helping people understand what it is that they actually do. Thanks for stopping by!

claudinho like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

My favorite non-profit is Iasi Community Foundation from Iasi, Romania (www.fundatiacomunitaraiasi.ro). I'm a board member and one of it's founders. 


  1. [...] TweetToday’s guest post is from Dan Portnoy, author of The Non-Profit Narrative, which I reviewed here last week. Check at the end of this post to see which of our commenters will be getting a free autographed [...]

  2. [...] to be a non-sequitur that the storytelling technique works so well in marketing, but it’s actually one of the best ways to get a reader’s attention and hold it. He’ll learn a lot about you and your product [...]

  3. [...] while also telling us the stories. Be conversational. Tell us what’s happening, while also telling us why we should care. It’s good to have a consistent voice, but it’s also helpful to have a team where the [...]

  4. [...] Read our friend Ken Mueller’s recent review of Dan’s book here. [...]

  5. [...] our friend Ken Mueller’s recent review of Dan’s book here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  6. [...] Volunteers are a part of your story – In his book, The Non-Profit Narrative, Dan Portnoy talks about the importance of sharing the story of your non-profit, including the [...]

  7. [...] more than even a few paragraphs of writing. We can see emotion, we can see context. As nonprofits, we all have stories to tell and for years we’ve been telling them in the form of letters, articles, newsletters, and more. [...]

  8. [...] one of your clients/donors/volunteers is a part of your story, and what makes you who you are. Include them in the story that you tell both online and offline. [...]

  9. [...] Read our friend Ken Mueller’s recent review of Dan’s book here. [...]

  10. […] help getting started? Check out Chapter One of Dan Portnoy’s book, The Nonprofit Narrative. Sure it was written with nonprofits in mind, but the principles apply just as well to small […]

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