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The secret to building empathy in your nonprofit stories

Nonprofit Storytelling

Let me know if this sounds familiar.

Awhile back I was working on a nonprofit story that was to be sent out to all of our email subscribers.

It was a powerful story about a courageous young women and the story meant a lot to me.

But I was struggling to find a way to infuse the story with the same emotion I felt.

I knew the problem.

I just didn’t know how to fix it.

I could clearly lay out the events of the story.

But I was struggling with the emotional journey I wanted for the reader.

I knew I needed to develop more empathy between the reader and the hero of the story.

But I was struggling to figure out how.

It’s not always as easy as it seems.

How do I stir the emotions of my audience?

And how can I get them to really feel the pain of my hero?

Have you ever had this problem?

It can be frustrating.

The last thing you want to do is hit publish on a story you know is lacking in emotional power.

So how do we solve this problem?

First, we need to understand what stirs the emotions of our audience.

Struggle, the empathy generator

Great storytellers will always pay attention to the emotional journey of their audience; not just the hero’s journey of their story.

And stirring the emotions of your audience is done by generating empathy for your hero.

The more empathetic your audience is to your hero the more likely they are to take action.

So how do you build empathy toward your hero?

It turns out, the answer is fairly simple, but the implementation can still be tricky.

In short, empathy is developed through struggle.

If you are explicit about the hero’s struggles and the emotions they face while enduring those struggles then you will build empathy in your audience.

But not all struggles elicit the same response.

So which struggles are the most important?

Which struggles will twist the hearts of your audience?

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!

How to build empathy on demand

The struggles your hero faces can be divided into three categories:

  1. External struggle
  2. Internal struggle
  3. Interpersonal struggle

Your hero doesn’t necessarily have to go through all three of the struggles in every story you tell, but I recommend using as many of them as possible.

You’ll see why in a second…

Identifying the types of struggles your hero will face is important.

Different types of struggle have a different impact on your audience.

External struggle generates curiosity.

When you describe an external struggle your hero must defeat your audience will ask themselves:

“What will they do? How will they overcome this?”

This is keeping your readers engaged as you move the story forward.

But it’s not so good at developing empathy.

The real secret to generating empathy is to describe the internal and interpersonal struggles of your hero.

With these two types of struggles your readers begin to think:

“I’ve struggled with the same questions. I know exactly how that feels.”

And that is exactly what you want them to be thinking.

Because as they think about how it feels, they actually start to feel it themselves.

Empathy has been achieved.

You build empathy on demand by being explicit about your hero’s internal and interpersonal struggles.

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!

The challenge of building empathy

I’ve found that many nonprofits are good at describing and explaining external struggles.

But they have a much more difficult time including internal and interpersonal struggles in their stories.

This was the same problem I had before. I knew the timeline of events, but I was missing the internal and interpersonal struggles.

Without them explicitly laid out in the story, it is a lot more difficult to give the story an emotional punch.

Why do nonprofits struggle so much with including these types of struggles in their stories?

It’s a lot more difficult the get the details of internal and interpersonal conflict.

The questions you need to ask during your story development interviews are a lot more personal.

But that’s exactly the key.

You have to get personal.

You have to ask about their internal struggles. You have to know what they were thinking and what they were feeling.

You have to know what they were struggling with internally.

And you have to ask about interpersonal struggles, too.

The details of your hero’s internal struggles and how their personal relationships were being affected are going to be your richest source of empathy.

If your story only ever discusses the external struggles of your hero then you will struggle to infuse emotion into your story.

Readers may be curious as to what will happen next and they may stick around to see how your hero overcomes the external challenges…

But if you don’t reveal the internal and interpersonal struggles of your hero to your audience they will not be primed to take action.

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!


  1. Great storytellers will always pay attention to the emotional journey of their audience; not just the hero’s journey of their story.
  2. Without empathy your audience will never take action.
  3. Internal and interpersonal struggles build empathy.
  4. To uncover internal and interpersonal struggles you have to get personal in your story development interviews.

Keep doing good work,
Jeremy Signature

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