Why Stories are Important to NGOs

By Kaylin Fabian, Online Fundraising and Communications Coordinator, PSI

NGOs usually have an easy time talking about the details of their interventions. Some, like PSI, pride themselves on providing data and evidence to prove their efficacy. But when it comes time to telling a meaningful story that shows the impact of their work, too many NGOs fall short.

Yes, it’s true, donors will always require first and foremost numbers and solid reporting as evidence that what they’re investing in is working. But it isn’t enough.

Here’s why NGOs need to care about stories:

  1. Stories allow us to empathize like nothing else in the world.

According to a study from the University College London, when a person is told a story, their brain reacts in the same exact way as it would if they were experiencing the events themselves. Stories literally bring numbers to life. When we read about the thousands of families who embarked on a dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean, we understand that the situation is dire.  But it was only when we saw the image of a lifeless Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned after the boat carrying his family to Europe capsized, did the American public and the international community truly grasp the tragic depths of this crisis.
This image, and the story of Aylan’s father, who simply sought a brighter future for his sons, moved thousands of people across world to take action. They demanded that their nations make a larger effort in assisting the refugees and preventing senseless deaths like Aylan’s. In response, many developed counties across Europe and North America stepped up and announced they were opening their doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

  1. Donors want stories.

Some are requiring them already: Last year, PSI country reps in Asia woke up one morning to find an email from their local USAID mission requesting human interest stories for a weekly newsletter series. Fortunately, the PSI network members had already been collecting stories on and off and were able to quickly polish their material before sending it off to USAID.
But even if donors aren’t specifically requesting stories, they get your work noticed. And there are lots of ways donors feature them:

  • Merck recently requested a story for their Merck for Mothers (MfM) annual report about work being done in Uganda by PACE, PSI’s network member. Part of the MfM program focuses on solutions to improve the quality of maternal healthcare women receive at a health facility. They specifically asked for the provider perspective and how they’ve benefitted from their relationship with MfM’s MUM project.
  • The Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimist blog is interested in hearing lessons learned and best practices from field experts. They require stories have an angle that shows how a Gates priority is achieved or help the Gates technical community learn. Last year, the Impatient Optimist published a story from PSI/Haiti, outlining Haiti’s response to the cholera outbreak of 2010 and how they plan to use the same tactics should another epidemic hit the country.
  • Global Fund blog stories are usually about 500 words and focus on “human stories, impact, and “anything particularly new or innovative.” This past March, Dr. Yu Yu May, one of more than 1,500 practitioners throughout Myanmar that are a part of PSI’s Sun Quality Health Clinic franchise, was featured for her work in TB treatment. Watch her video here:


Yes, measurement will always be at the forefront when showing the impact of donor investments. But NGOs are missing opportunities if they neglect to present those numbers with an illustration of what their work means on a human level.