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Before words are read or spoken, we begin receiving messages based on what we see. Being as digital communications have become so highly visual, the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words has never rang so true. How things look is a huge part of how we experience our world. Marketers along with chefs and artists all know this, which is why mastering the skill of visual storytelling is so important for organizations that rely on communications, not products, to support their businesses.

For nonprofits, communicating from the core of your mission is essential to making that deep connection with your target audience. Visuals that also communicate from that message encourage those same audiences to engage emotionally, which impacts organizational success in both awareness and fundraising. It is by building trust and fostering a connection that successful organizations are able to garner the support necessary to sustain their work and further their impact.

In this article we’ll outline the four pillars of visual storytelling: authenticity, sensory, relevancy, and archetype. Each element serves to support the underlying goal of tapping into the emotion, identity, and core values of our audiences as well as our organizations.

Authenticity: Real Rules

We’re on a search for what feels real. While writing needs to maintain a sense of authenticity, images need to capture slice-of-life moments that anyone taking a look can connect to what they’re seeing in some way. In the age of the selfie, we’re unconsciously requiring realness and challenging the status quo: polished, staged, and overly prepared scenes.

Candid images that reveal the reality of your work and your story are going to capture attention and make your message memorable because you’re opening a window to your world for the reader or viewer. Cultivating donors and retain your share of the audience is rooted in the creation of an unbreakable bond between an organization and its constituents.

Example from Room to Read

Sensory: Make Them Feel It

Picture yourself engulfed in the digital at some point during the day. Scroll, stop, scroll, stop. We take in so much information so quickly, but how often does something capture your attention? As communicators, we’re in a constant battle to cut through the blue light infused thumb scroll marathon of today; getting above the noise to get a message through to the other side.

If you think a little deeper, you’ll realize that in those moments what makes you stop, think, and engage is oftentimes some kind of content that provides a more visceral experience. This isn’t always the perfectly pristine, but rather the nitty-gritty and beautifully flawed, majestic images that you can somehow smell in the air and feel on your skin. Things like this invite us in for a full sensory experience.


There’s no denying information overload, so the point is to cut through the excess and inspire. When you’re soliciting support for your organization, you’ve got to inspire your audience. Sometimes we avoid using imagery that may conjure feelings of discomfort, however, disrupting the norm with something that overwhelms the senses can trigger an emotional response. When you invite someone into your reality, they’ll feel more ready to take action by engaging.

Relevancy: Progressive Personalization

The most important element of any story is its relevance to the audience on the receiving end. Without a vested interest or a personal connection, a story will simply serve as anecdotal. For fundraisers, stories are intended to spark action and the only way to do this is by illustrating a personalized written narrative with an equally personal visual one. In order to do this well, it’s important to know your audience. Beyond what they like, know what you share and what their values are. If your organization’s work is helping to bring those same values into the world, select visuals that demonstrate progress by being culturally relevant as well as personally relevant.

Example from the Waldorf School of Garden City


Archetypes: Tapping Into Identity

Every story has a character and every character fits a certain persona or archetype. Of the several personality archetypes there are, three tend to apply most to nonprofit stories: the caregiver, the explorer, and the creator. Throughout this article we’ve discussed the importance of making a connection with those you’re communicating with in a way that inspires them to take action and support your cause. By understanding the various individuals whose stories shape our culture, our present, and our future, the content that we create will ultimately be more engaging.

The characters we place in our stories are going to be perceived differently across a multitude of audiences, but the key takeaway to remember is that a memorable character with whom readers or viewers identify with are what make lasting stories. The goal here is to keep your story and organization top of mind. For instance, if your organization’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of children you’ll want to connect that idea with the character(s) in your story. When a person within your constituency thinks of children in need, the emotional connection they have to your story is what will bring your organization to mind in this instance. Consider the archetypes of your audience before planning your stories. And remember, visuals have the power to help us relate and make meaningful connections to the world around us.


The Wrap Up

We all know the importance of a good story, but powerful imagery allows your narrative to transcend the page and root itself in the hearts and minds of your audience. When the time comes to plan your next campaign, utilize videos and new platforms like digital publishing to bring your content to life. Incorporating these elements of visual storytelling into your materials will draw those around you closer to your cause.

You Might Also Enjoy:

+ Storytelling Tactics: Using Testimonials and Anecdotes to Drive Engagement

+ The Nonprofit’s Guide to Personalized Content

+ 7 Nonprofit Lead Generation Strategies that Get Results

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