Nonprofits & NGOs

The Benefits of Building a Narrative Organization

The value of narrative in your organization extends well beyond telling stories in your annual report and newsletters.

The value of narrative in your organization extends well beyond telling stories in your annual report and newsletters. When an organization embraces narrative and applies it throughout its work, brand identity is clear and appealing; audiences are quickly and sustainably engaged; leaders appreciate and strategically share stories; and knowledge is easily gathered and shared.

A closer look at the benefits:

Brand identity
Stories help to make seemingly indefinable and intangible organizational values and attributes (such as unity and sustainability) concrete and tangible.

In every organization, there is the big story—the organizational narrative—and the smaller stories that support, reiterate, and personalize the larger narrative. Your organization’s narrative is at the core of its values, mission, and actions. Your brand is strengthened when the smaller stories are consistently refreshed and shared. LIVESTRONG, formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation, offers a terrific example of a strong organizational narrative, consistently supported with stories from cancer survivors and caregivers.

Your brand identity can be created, strengthened, and explored by asking: What stories are we sharing about ourselves? What stories are other people sharing about us?

Audience engagement
There’s no better way to humanize your organization than through stories about the people involved—clients, donors, staff, etc. People engage with people, not with amorphous entities. By sharing stories, you are engaging your audiences in hearing, understanding, and remembering your organization’s larger narrative. And, because stories are more memorable than disassociated facts, they spread more easily.

Charity:Water, which promotes clean water in developing countries, offers a unique opportunity for donor engagement on its Campaigns to Watch web page.

When you share your organizational stories, make sure you are able to hear the stories that you will elicit in return. Story begets story, and a narrative organization will engage audiences by allowing for multiple channels of true conversation. Start sharing, and listening, and asking: What themes are emerging from the stories we are hearing? What stories are resulting in real engagement?

Smart leadership
Sharing authentic stories helps build credibility and trust, and develop and deepen relationships with funders, colleagues, and other stakeholders. Stories facilitate and perpetuate conversation, and help people get heard.

Stories also help smart leaders introduce the meaning of new projects and products. In a narrative organization, leaders are skilled in linking current projects and challenges to the narrative of the organization’s past, present, and future.

Story is now even more important to leadership, given the multitude of platforms for both expression and intake; audiences are distracted and fragmented, and having one strong narrative—communicated through discrete stories and across multiple outlets—is crucial to communicating vision, conquering complexity, and inspiring change.

Knowledge sharing
Stories provide a practical and sustainable structure for sharing knowledge and revealing connections between seemingly disconnected information. Stories illustrate quantitative data, yield insight into lessons learned, and surface tacit knowledge. Stories also help both internal and external audiences make sense of the huge amounts of data organizations often hold.

The Vera Institute of Justice, an organization devoted to justice policy and practice, uses story to share knowledge both internally as well as externally, as evidenced in their blog.

Start sharing stories, listening, and learning. Build a narrative organization and reap the benefits of strong and authentic identity, leadership, and engagement.

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  • Careful: one organization with an excellent narrative was Greg Mortenson’s CAI.

    Narrative could just as easily prompt oversimplification and an emphasis on making donors feel good and engaged, rather than focusing on how best to serve the beneficiary population.  Perhaps rather than narrative, we should emphasize truth.

  • BY Jeanne Marie Olson

    ON April 22, 2011 05:45 PM

    Also, make sure the stories are thoroughly true.  Narratives spun by a PR, marketing or branding function that are overinflated or whitewash some facts or which “lie by omission” are WAY more damaging than no story at all.  Valuable narratives have razor sharp integrity.  Narrative without integrity gets uncovered eventually and creates long term internal and external damage.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON April 22, 2011 06:23 PM

    Brigid, and Jeanne, thank you both for commenting. Yes, truth triumphs and lies corrupt and cause great damage! When working with social innovation organizations, there is no such thing as an excellent untruthful narrative, no matter how nicely fabricated.

  • Rebekah  Basinger's avatar

    BY Rebekah Basinger

    ON May 2, 2011 08:14 AM

    A key point here, and one that is key to combatting exaggerations and outright lies, is that “stories illustrate quantitative data.” It’s true that the majority of people are little interested in numbers and metrics, but that doesn’t let organizational leaders off the hook for program assessment and ongoing evaluation. This is not a matter of either/or. Organizational leaders need to be expert storytellers and there should be intentionality about the stories we choose to tell. But stories without numbers and hard data to back them up too easily lead to the Greg Mortenson syndrome.

  • Steven Krolak's avatar

    BY Steven Krolak

    ON May 3, 2011 04:13 PM

    Great piece, Thaler. In my experience, storytellers are often brought into the game too late, are expected to extrapolate stories from statistical data, or to track down fieldworkers who are overwhelmed with one crisis after another. In development, record-keeping is spotty. A good corporate narrative strategy would embed writers during the experiential process, or, better yet, assist fieldworkers in developing good, solid storytelling skills.

  • Lynne Kemen's avatar

    BY Lynne Kemen

    ON May 8, 2011 12:22 PM

    A thoughtful, well done essay. I totally agree with you about engagement and personalizing a company or organization. It is by illustrating who we are and who we represent that we make ourselves accessible. As a teacher, I find that telling stories from my own experiences is more compelling than any chapter or powerpoint. Sharing experiences can make the difference in a way that is more powerful than any other type of presentation I can imagine.

    Your methodology is excellent and I always enjoy your articles.

  • Sicheng Luo 's avatar

    BY Sicheng Luo

    ON December 5, 2011 09:21 PM

    that narrative seemingly relate to the ethics, in my country, narrative is largely considered as telling the lie, althoug you are sincerely share the experience. This situation is getting obvious when people conducting this qualitative method in commercial area. it might due to our traditonal culture - Confucianism, which had been seriously distorted during the Great Clutural Revolution in China between 1966 and 1976.

  • Douglas Newton's avatar

    BY Douglas Newton

    ON April 12, 2012 01:52 PM

    To echo what others have said, yes, storytelling needs to correspond to truth.  Otherwise, credibility is damaged, often beyond repair.  At the same time, it is clear that many organizations have not adequately imagined how to articulate what they do to the stakeholders who support them.  In the nonprofit world, the notion of support through member-driven organizations is often considered an entitlement.  So, the ability to tell the basic story of what an organization is accomplishing is very important.  A compelling narrative (deployed variously) that makes the case for an organization’s mission and work often will be inextricably linked to that entity’s ability to survive.

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