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How to Tell the Environmental Story

Posted by on January 24th, 2011
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Annual Report, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Fundraising, Nonprofit Messaging, Storytelling    Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In fighting for the health of the Earth and its inhabitants, environmentalists often get bogged down in numbers or scientific minutiae, alienating rather than engaging the very people whose support they need.

But people don’t give their support to facts and figures, even when they relate to verdant forests, wide-open wilderness, clean air and water, or cuddly polar bears. They give because, one way or another, the issue affects people, and the closer to home the more likely folks are to support a cause.

As we have said many times, storytelling is the key to connecting with your audiences. Excessive reliance on scientific facts and figures—along with the overwhelming enormity of the problem—is why climate change deniers are winning over hearts and minds in the face of irrefutable evidence of the threat’s existence and many examples of the harm it is already causing.

One group, 350.org, led by the great environmental writer Bill McKibben, has taken on the challenge. The folks at 350.org understand the power of story and the importance of providing specific examples of how climate change is harming people around the world right now. Ironic that they named the group for the target amount of carbon dioxide, in parts per million, that is critical to reducing the threat, isn’t it?

Despite using this highly scientific and impossible-to-imagine number, 350.org knows how to tell stories in such dramatic ways they are effectively building a worldwide movement to fight climate change.

Whether it’s a story about a West Virginia woman fighting coal mining, the effects on thousands of people affected by flooding in Australia and freak winter storms in Europe and the United States, or melting permafrost that is destroying whole Alaska Native villages, 350.org knows that people will join their movement to help other people, and to help themselves.

So when you write your next fundraising appeal, annual report, or action alert, think about what stories you can tell to illustrate the importance of your work, how it affects people both far and near. Yes, we are all more impoverished if some species becomes extinct. Each species has value in and of itself, but perhaps that peculiar rare plant holds the key to some rare cancer that targets children.

Though many environmentalists reasonably spurn the notion of commodifying nature, the reality is that most people respond to their own self-interest and concern for other people.

Those faraway Asian mangrove forests being cut down for shrimp farms are important to fostering biodiversity. But people are likelier to avoid eating shrimp from these destructive farms if they know the mangroves protect coastal residents from storms and hurricanes, and are nurseries for the fish those people depend on for their lives and livelihoods.

Rather than reporting the number of hectares cut down each year, talk about the vast numbers of coastal residents who are displaced and impoverished by temporary fish farms that profit just a few for a short time.

Most of all, remember to talk about the benefits of your work, not its features. People care about how your work will make the world a better place, not what you are doing to get there.

What stories are you telling to engage and excite the people you need to accomplish your goals? We’d love to hear them.


Susan Alexander is a Mission Minded Senior Strategist. She has decades of experience working with nonprofit organizations as a communications and fundraising consultant.

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2 responses to “How to Tell the Environmental Story”

  1. Susi, Thank you for this great piece of writing. I was listening to this TEDtalk when your email came in. Required listening for you and all your readers—for the world, actually.
    Thanks for taking the time to practice your writing skills.