When a visitor lands on the homepage of this website, they are presented with the following message:
“Cosmic is a social impact creative agency. We empower social impact organizations to catalyze real world change by helping them nail their impact story, build brand awareness, and inspire action.”
The order of our key value propositions — leading with “Nail your impact story” — is not arbitrary. A clear and concise impact story (also commonly referred to as a ‘brand story’ or ‘brand narrative’) is a critical foundational element that social impact organizations need in order to build awareness and inspire action. Digital strategy, design, and messaging are interwoven. You need all three to succeed in the digital age.
Your impact story is much more than the spark that inspired the founding of your organization. It’s the narrative that connects people to your cause and mission emotionally and intellectually. It’s the reason that funders, supporters, and advocates will get behind you and your cause, buy your products and services, and tell their friends and colleagues about you. And it makes your organization relevant today.
With all of that riding on your impact story, it’s worth diving into this critical messaging component and understanding why social impact leaders should look beyond the founding narrative when developing it.
Impact Story vs. Brand Story
We mentioned above that the impact story is often called a ‘brand story’. In many ways, the two terms are interchangeable. As a creative agency, we often use them this way. But they’re not quite the same. The concept of the brand story originated in the corporate sector. It’s how brands convince you that you should buy their products. It’s easy to tell a story around lifestyle, or about a product being tough, reliable, useful, tasty, made in the US, or designed to create a magical experience that connects you to the world.
An impact story is more nuanced. It’s tied to and contains your theory of change. It answers the question, “How are you going to create the change you want to see in the world and bring about your desired future state?” That’s why we think of the story that social impact organizations tell as an impact story, rather than a brand story.
How to Develop Your Impact Story
An engaging impact story consists of four critical components. We’ll look at each one below and talk about their prominence. The order of each element will vary from organization to organization as we discuss below. When crafting your impact story, it can be helpful to move the parts around to see which narrative flow best suits your organization. Experiment with which elements get the most emphasis.
Your impact story should tell a reader why your cause matters and why you are the right organization to address this challenge. Establishing these two points helps your community and funders understand why they should support your work. Keep these messaging pieces front and center when developing your impact story.
What You Do Today
Mission and vision statements are powerful declarations that inspire people to learn more about your organization. But they tend to be aspirational and don’t describe the day-to-day actions that your organization performs. What you need is a description that clearly calls out what you are doing right now to reach your desired future state. Give people a window into the everyday activities of your organization. We refer to this declaration as a Value Statement.
Here are some examples from organizations we’ve worked with to develop their Value Statement:
BridgeCare: Modern Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions for government agencies and organizations working to build an ECE system that works for everyone.
Constructive Dialogue Institute: We work with institutions across the education, for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors to help them communicate across differences and build inclusive cultures.
Cause Strategy Partners: We connect a diverse network of talented professionals to nonprofit board service opportunities.
Land Trust of Santa Cruz County: We protect land to ensure the culture, economy, environment, and unique beauty of the area — for generations to come.
Civic Online Reasoning: The COR curriculum provides free lessons and assessments that help you teach students to evaluate online information that affects them, their communities, and the world.
Let’s Green CA!: Through public education, grassroots organizing, research, and leadership training, Let’s Green CA! is dedicated to making California a model of equitable climate action.
Your Value Statement should infer your niche in the issue ecosystem in which you operate. A reader should understand if you are a boots on the ground organization, or one that works in advocacy, policy, law, etc.
Effective impact stories often start with a Value Statement that tells people what the organization does in simple terms. When used as an opening statement written in the present tense, it appeals to the rational mind, informing people about the practical, concrete actions that your organization is taking right now.
We’ve also used the Value Statement much later in the impact story — even used it as a closing element. It’s powerful wherever you want to make your intellectual argument for why you are an organization worth supporting.
We work with a lot of organizations to help them evolve beyond their founding phase into one that is growing in size, awareness, and impact. When a social impact organization first launches, it’s a viable strategy to lean on the founders’ story. It’s personal, emotional, and often being told in the first person. Most founders serve as both the CEO or ED and the primary fundraiser/development person when they start their organization. This makes sense when you’re in scrappy startup mode.
Many organizations lead with their origin story. That’s a good strategy as long as the impact story includes the other components.
As an organization scales, it quickly becomes clear that the founder(s) can’t be everywhere at once. They can’t spend all of their time fundraising. They need a development person or team. At this point, the founding story is about looking back. A strong social impact organization should be driving forward.
That’s not to say that you should dump the founding story. It’s a vital part of the emotional hook that’s attractive to supporters, advocates, and funders. It just might work better later in your impact story. We often place the origin story second or third in the narrative.
Your Theory of Change
Your impact story needs to walk potential supporters through your strategy for creating change. Describe how your actions address your cause. Avoid insider speak and provide an overview of the programs, services, or products that you offer. Your theory of change should walk people through your plan to create change using clear, plain language.
If your theory of change is novel or part of your origin story, it might make sense to open your impact story with it. We’ve done this using a simple Problem/Solution format that includes the theory of change. If your theory of change is complex, it might make more sense to place this piece of your impact story third. An origin story followed by a theory of change often makes for a good one-two punch that defines the problem and your solution.
Wherever you place your theory of change, know that it provides an opportunity for you to bring transparency and clarity to your work. This part appeals to the rational mind. Anyone who reads this section should understand who you serve, what you do for them, and your strategy for driving change.
Desired Future State
Your impact story needs to paint a picture of the world you want to create. Bring people into your vision. Inspire them to take action. Describe what the world looks like when you achieve your goals.
Your vision can provide an aspirational closing to your impact story. It helps you end on a positive and inviting note that makes people feel that it's possible to achieve your vision — and they can be part of the solution.
You should also consider leading with your vision. We’ve created many impact stories that open with versions of the brand mission and vision, similar to how the Value Statement is used. Using strong, positive messaging is a good strategy for getting people interested in your work and reading through your impact story to learn how you plan to achieve your vision and where they fit in as funders, supporters, and advocates.