Marketing vs. Communications vs. Storytelling

5 min read

The nonprofit sector is full of jargon, silos, and the confusion that both create. Nowhere is this truer than in the marketing/communications/storytelling/fundraising arms of organizations, which seem to blur together and overlap more than almost any other area. Ask two different nonprofit professionals how these functions relate to one another, and you’re likely to get two completely different answers.

In a recent post on our blog, Kate Diveley provided her perspective on how marketing and fundraising differ. Now, it’s my turn to break down the relationship between marketing, communications, and storytelling.

While marketing, communications and storytelling are often used interchangeably, both in conversations within nonprofit organizations, and in the way teams are structured, I believe each of these functions deserves its own unique definition and attention. I also believe that we’ll be able to elevate the role that these functions play in the sector if we can move toward a common definition of each of them. 

Here are the definitions we propose:

  • Nonprofit Marketing comprises the activities, touchpoints and messages that motivate stakeholders to take actions that advance a nonprofit’s mission and create sustainable social change.
  • Nonprofit Communications is the two-way exchange of information between a nonprofit and its stakeholders, such as staff, board members, donors, program participants and volunteers
  • Nonprofit Storytelling is the process of sharing accounts, factual and in some cases fictionalized, that depict a nonprofit’s work, impact, mission or vision.

How Does Nonprofit Storytelling Relate to Marketing and Communications?

If you’re still confused, you’re not alone. On the surface, these three definitions might sound quite similar. Here’s how I like to think about the distinction between them. Marketing is the “umbrella” strategic discipline under which communications falls. Communications is one aspect of marketing, but it’s not the only one. Storytelling is a tool that can be used in communications to make a specific point or achieve specific aims.


Marketing = Strategy

Marketing is a vital part of an organization’s strategy. Marketing helps identify target stakeholders for an organization based on its mission and goals, determines what those stakeholders will need to do in order to advance the organization’s mission, and what will compel those stakeholders to take the desired actions. Then, marketing establishes a marketing plan, and communications is almost always part of that plan.

Communications = Tactics

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to encourage stakeholders to act without first communicating with them. That’s why marketing almost always pulls the “communications tool” out of its toolbox when bringing its plan to life. Communications is the most tangible and tactical aspect of marketing – it is the messages you put out into the world through many of your activities, such as  public relations campaigns and speeches at events, and touchpoints, like your employee newsletter and website copy and imagery.

Storytelling = A (Very Powerful) Tool

Nonprofit storytelling, then, should be thought of simply as a tool used in various types of communications in order to paint a picture of the work your organization does, the impact it has, its mission and/or its vision. Because you can’t tell a story without communications of some sort, storytelling should be considered part of communications, which is part of marketing. 

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools at your organization’s disposal, and it’s likely that you have a goldmine of stories just waiting to be tapped into.

If you want to use stories to your advantage, start with what you already have. Begin by asking your program staff to share stories of the people they interact with every day – they probably have dozens. Then, incorporate those stories into key touchpoints like your annual appeal, the homepage of your website and your social media posts.

Or, consider how you could turn data that already lives in documents like your grant applications or annual report into stories. For example,  you might mine data from your annual report to do some social math and describe how you accomplished a specific outcome with a certain amount of funding last year, and how you can increase that impact if you hit your fundraising goal this year. It’s best to pair quantitative data like this with qualitative examples, even if that requires some theoretical/fictionalized storytelling (ex: “imagine a child who is experiencing homelessness…”) that helps your audience understand the circumstances of the communities and individuals you work with in more general terms.

If possible, you should also aim to gather stories from as many different types of people your organization works with as possible, which will allow you to take many directions with your communications, paint a more complete picture of the diversity of the populations you serve, and appeal to many different types of donors and other stakeholders.

However you choose to gather stories, make sure that you’re seeking the necessary permissions to use names and imagery, or protecting identities where needed. 

You should always plan to run the stories you choose to use by the people and communities reflected in them to make sure they feel comfortable with the way they’re represented. There is nothing worse than exploiting the people you hope to help just to pull on a donor’s heartstrings.

If you’re interested in learning more about nonprofit marketing, the umbrella discipline under which communications and storytelling both live, check out our Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto. That’s where we first proposed our definition to nonprofit marketing.

We’d love to hear from you. How do you define and differentiate marketing, communications, and storytelling? Do you have any tips for making the most of the power of storytelling as it relates to both of these areas of your nonprofit?

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