Organizational Development

Building a Storytelling Culture

Why a shift in mindset and an investment in capacity are essential in sustaining storytelling efforts.

A vibrant storytelling culture means the difference between whether your organization has a living, breathing portfolio of different stories, from different perspectives, that share its impact—or just a single, somewhat stagnant story. It’s the difference between having one person in the organization dedicated to storytelling (whether that’s the CEO, development director, or head of communications) and everyone in the organization having compelling stories at their fingertips. And for many organizations, it’s the difference between investing in telling the organization’s story in a more compelling way—or not investing.

Much of the conversation about nonprofit storytelling today focuses on why organizations should tell stories. It’s safe to say that most organizations understand the need for stories as a tool for engaging potential donors, funders, and supporters. In fact, in a survey of Washington, DC-based nonprofits we conducted last year, 96 percent of respondents said that storytelling is an important part of their communications. Far fewer conversations are dedicated to the “how”—specifically, how nonprofits (especially smaller ones) can develop a sustainable system for collecting and sharing stories.

So what, exactly, do we mean by a “storytelling culture,” and how do nonprofits go about building one? While producing applied storytelling research, tools, and trainings during our yearlong Stories Worth Telling project at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, we looked at hundreds of nonprofit stories and interviewed more than a dozen organizations with compelling evidence of having this elusive culture nailed down. We discovered two main components: a mindset and appreciation for stories, and capacity.

Mindset and Appreciation

Regardless of whether the instigator of a nonprofit’s storytelling culture comes from the bottom or the top, experts agree that the mindset of thinking and communicating in terms of stories must permeate throughout the organization to be successful.

“If you are going to build a storytelling culture, you need to expose everyone to how it works,” says Roger Burks, a communications specialist and former senior writer at Mercy Corps and CARE. “You’re essentially strengthening your organization’s capacity by building more storytellers.”

This means that leaders at the very top of the organization must model an appreciation for story, and all staff must understand the story planning process, as well as how stories add value to their own work and the organization’s work as a whole.

Maureen Dwyer, executive director at the Sitar Arts Center, describes how her organization encourages an appreciation for stories among its small staff. “We start every meeting by sharing new stories about the students in the center,” she says. “The majority of these stories are written by various staff members, with the grants manager taking the lead on organization and management. The stories are then included in a newsletter we send to parents and donors twice a year.”

Sometimes, it takes an “aha!” moment to get everyone in the organization excited about the power of stories. Ron Geatz, director of global content at the Nature Conservancy, describes how an organization that is very fact- and data-driven began to embrace the power of stories. “People in the audience were literally falling asleep,” he said of the first meeting of country directors he attended years ago. He immediately banned PowerPoint slides from the next meeting, imploring them to tell a single story instead. Geatz worked with each director to identify a personal story about their work and to build their confidence in telling that personal story in front of a group of their peers. “Everyone was nervous and uncertain about it, right up until the last minute,” he said. But the results were transformational—a more engaged, connected audience and tons of internal excitement around the power of stories.

The process of systematically evaluating story success becomes critically important when thinking about reinforcing an organization-wide mindset and appreciation for stories. Nonprofits should look for opportunities to highlight the outcomes (anecdotal or quantitative) of shared stories and how they helped achieve measurable goals, and even build this reporting into meetings where the staff share stories.

Capacity

If having an organization-wide appreciation for stories translates to a willingness to invest in planning for and producing them, then the second dimension of a sustainable culture—capacity—translates into actually making that concrete investment. It’s having the systems, talent, and resources in place. Since talent (internal or external) can have a tremendous effect on the systems and resources needed, organizations tend to think of maximizing their investment there. Indeed, respondents to our survey of nonprofit executives in the greater Washington, DC area highlighted staff resources as the number one barrier to effectively telling stories (31 percent)—ahead of budget or other considerations.

So how can organizations maximize investment in storytellers? Many face the choice of whether to invest internally, externally, or both.

A few common ways smaller nonprofits allocate their storytelling investment:

  • An internal team of storytellers, each with skills (existing or developed) in photography, video, and overall storytelling basics (for example, some training in journalism or communications). Interns or volunteers can bring skills and expertise, but there’s generally a full-time staff member coordinating the process to ensure sustainability and knowledge transfer.
  • A single communications (or development) person, who is the storytelling focal point of the organization. This individual coordinates with other internal staff to lead collection, training, and planning for stories.
  • A communications team or individual who collaborates with external professionals and/or production companies.

It is often cost prohibitive (and perhaps less sustainable) for organizations to consistently and exclusively hire outside professionals to do their storytelling. Many smaller organizations focus on building internal capacity—training individuals, hiring staff with existing storytelling interests and skills, or spreading training opportunities across teams.

Important Questions to Ask

These questions can help guide you in assessing your nonprofit’s culture (or readiness to adopt more of a storytelling culture):

  • Is there uniform belief in the value of storytelling and support for its use throughout the organization, from top to bottom?
  • Do staff members feel confident in their ability to share stories that illustrate the organization’s mission?
  • When stories successfully lead to increased awareness or funds, does management share these successes with staff?
  • Is the staff regularly encouraged to develop storytelling skills through professional development and/or adoption of new technology?
  • Does the staff meet at regular intervals (weekly, monthly) to share and discuss stories?
  • Is storytelling incorporated into at least one staff member’s core job duties?
  • Do staff storytellers seek out professional development opportunities to expand their skills when necessary?
  • Is there a dedicated budget for producing stories (including upkeep of software/hardware)?
  • If different departments or individuals handle collection and production, is there an organized system for transferring this information from one to the other?

In our survey, 90 percent of respondents reported that they expect the importance of storytelling to increase in the coming two years. This poses a tremendous opportunity for organizations to reassess their internal cultures, and to ensure that they have the systems and processes in place to meet the demand for authentic, compelling stories that showcase the impact of their work. For more tools, examples, and resources, we encourage you to check out the entire Stories Worth Telling project.

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