November 21, 2017
 
Storytelling Provides a Way for Nonprofits to Shape Their Future

By Laura Packer

Laura Packer
Stories that nonprofits convey—through their vision and mission, and via internal and external communications—tell the people who are important to them how they want to be seen, and the better they do it, the better they are able to shape their future.

Storytelling is a broad and flexible tool that can be used successfully in every organization.

From our earliest hunter-gatherer days we have used story to explain and understand ourselves and our world. This is true of organizations as well. The stories they tell internally (newsletters, intranets, gossip, employee chatter) are how the organization sees itself. The stories they tell themselves about their clients shape the services they offer. And the stories they tell externally shape how they are seen by the world at large. None of this is a surprise, of course, since organizations are created and maintained by humans, the storytelling animal.

Stories help organizations find their voice, solve internal problems, better serve their stakeholders, expand, grow into better places to work, and become better global citizens.

A nonprofit that knows its story, knows how to tell it to a variety of audiences, and knows that it must continually listen to all of its stakeholders is likely to be a more compelling organization for funders, staff, and the media.

An organization that has a disjointed story, one where the staff and the executives have different ideas about what they should tell people and where the lessons contained within stories are ignored, is a place that is ignoring its own best tools and overlooking a crucial resource.

What Organizational Storytelling Does

Storying a company, a process, or a product humanizes it—in a way that a memo or spreadsheet does not—and thus extends ownership throughout the organization or community. The story itself actually becomes a deliverable, a product, alive and vital to the audience, whoever they may be. It helps everyone involved in the organization, from the top to the bottom, internally and externally, understand the mission, communicate more effectively, and feel empowered to move the organization forward.

But storytelling not a simple process.

You must first identify the stories in your organization by identifying a variety of stories, including those of success and failure. Stories may be collected from staff, executives, clients, board members, and others, depending on the organization’s need.

These stories are then examined in light of the mission to how they may support it or reveal a disconnect between the stated mission and the actual services being offered.

Once you identify stories, you need to determine how you want to use them. To highlight an existing service or to design something new? To raise more funds? To attract better talent or further engage their staff and stakeholders? To clarify or develop a mission statement? To get publicity? To solve an internal problem?

When an organization decides to build a storytelling practice, it commits itself to greater authenticity and engagement.

Storytelling Helps Organizations Articulate Their Value

Externally, a storytelling organization is better able to articulate its value, regardless of its service or product. Think about your favorite brand. Why do you love it? What stories does it tell? The Humane Society protects and serves animals and the people who love them. The Red Cross is there in times of need. Each of these stories somehow resonates with an aspect of being human, some story we wish to tell about ourselves or our community: caring for the creatures that depend on us; helping and being helped. What’s more, each of these organizations tells these stories as personal experiences – someone specific using their product or services.

Internally, a storytelling organization is a listening organization. It listens to its employees’ stories so it can help them become more engaged in their work and uncover issues before they become problems.

A leader who uses stories authentically and listens to employees’ stories can’t help but connect more effectively to everyone inside and outside the organization. It becomes harder to make thoughtless management decisions and, as a more positive work environment builds, the organization flourishes. It is easier to engage meaningfully the public and move them to action with an authentic, well-told story.

Identifying the essential stories of an organization is a transformational experience. Whether listening to stakeholders to identify new values, problems, or directions, helping a leader to be a better speaker and listener, communicating how a service will or could be used, or helping build organizational cohesiveness, organizational storytelling helps nonprofits remember their roots and look forward. Storytelling also says that organizations are composed of people – that each and every one of us is composed of stories, and that those stories help shape the future.

Laura Packer has worked as an organizational storytelling practitioner for the past 15 years, helping for-profit and nonprofit organizations and their employees tell their stories. Email her at laura@thinkstory.com. Learn more about her work at thinkstory.com .

May 2013

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