Tag: storytelling

A decade ago, our nonprofit’s very small communications team embarked on the journey to actively write a blog and participate in social media. We weren’t sure if we would have enough content but we committed to starting out by listening, interacting, and contributing when possible. Fast forward to 2019 and we now have an active social media community and often have a waitlist to publish on our blog.

It took years of building relationships within our agency to help people understand the value of sharing stories about the interactions they have with the youth we serve. But building those relationships was well worth the effort because we now have champions and writers from our program team that understand why sharing stories is so impactful for our supporters and donors.

Here is how we built those relationships and found our storytelling champions:

1. Make it easy

When we first invited program staff to share their stories and experiences, we tried to make it as easy as possible for them to help us. We invited them to leave voicemails, share in person, write email dot points – whatever paved the way for them to share their experiences.

2. Professional writing is not required

We told our contributors they did not have to be perfect writers or have a complete story. This took some of the pressure off, so they could focus on telling us what happened and let us handle the grammar!

3. Build trust in the way you work

We work with at-risk and homeless youth so we take seriously the privacy and confidentiality of our youth. It was important for our program staff to know we would only be sharing stories in a way that protected our youth and did not identify them. We changed names, key facts and places to make sure stories we shared respected their confidentiality.

4. Reward their involvement

Each year we have a storytelling competition for our three core programs. During December, staff can contribute stories and have a chance to win Best Story as well as some fun prizes. Program staff already have a full-time job so asking more of them can be difficult. It helps to be able to offer a little something extra to encourage them to get involved.

5. Identify your champions

After a few years, we were able to identify program staff that were talented writers and those who loved sharing what they do. When you find excited people, be sure to reach out so they know how much you appreciate their time. These are your cheerleaders, the folks who will help others understand why sharing the day-to-day stories are so important.

6. Show your gratitude

Our development and communications team have a thank-you committee to give credit to departments that support our work. Even a simple card or note to someone can show them how much their stories mean.

It took years of hard work and building relationships to make staff understand how important it is for our donors to hear about the work we are doing and getting a glimpse into the lives of the youth we serve. This continues to be an ongoing process as our agency grows and changes and new people join us. Building relationships is worth the effort. The stories that come from our front line are featured in direct mail, email appeals, social media, and other donor communications.

I hope this helps you to build strong relationships with your program teams and find the storytelling champions within your nonprofit.

 

Recently, Rainier Valley Corps’ Fellows completed a training on storytelling and nonprofit communication. The training was led by Nikkita Oliver, organizer, educator, lawyer, and poet. I was particularly interested in attending this training myself because of the challenges I face in attempting to share and communicate highlights and lessons learned from the Fellowship Program. Even now, as the second cohort of fellows are halfway into their first year, I am cautious of how we share the stories and complexities of each individual fellow as well as the cohort as a whole.

Nikkita began the training with a question:

How do we acknowledge our multiple identities, both the ones we claim and the ones that have been put onto us?

It was a powerful way to consider the identities we embrace and ones forced on us or the ways others see us impact our identities. The point of this activity was to understand how our identities intersect in relation to others and the world.

For example, I am the daughter of middle-class Ethiopian immigrants who moved to the United States and whose parents were regulated to working-class status. The experiences of my parents have deeply impacted my experience as a first generation person in the US. I don’t have first-hand experience of leaving behind everything I knew and moving to a new, unfamiliar land with hope and enough resilience to overcome the disdain they surely faced as Black immigrants. But I understand and have been impacted by those experiences. It’s one of the profound sources that dictates many of the choices I make, the paths I take, and what led me to commit my time, skills, and passions towards this work.

The nonprofit sector has a long history of exploiting the stories of the people they serve, particularly, people of color. This perpetuates racism and oppression, etc. Known examples are the stories and images you see on TV of “the starving and dying and warring” children and peoples, particularly in Africa. The nonprofit sector continues to struggle with diversity among staff, which contributes to non-people of color telling the stories of people of color.

The great African storyteller Chinua Achebe said, “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.” When we tell the stories of the people we serve we are creating people in the imagination of our audiences and contributing to their existing biases, narratives, opinions, and idea about the people in the story. We have to acknowledge this power. Words have power. Stories have power. They can be revelations for change or destruction. Achebe also said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

With that said, until there is a radical shift in social, political, and economic power locally and globally, we must be cautious and tell stories that empower people and highlight the strengths, liberation, and self-determination of our communities.

Questions to ask yourself when sharing stories

Here are some guidelines and things to consider when writing or sharing the stories of the people we serve.

  • Think about how your own story (identity) or parts of your story show up in the story you are trying to share. What are the stories and identities you embrace and own? What are the stories and identities that are placed on you? What are those shared stories and experiences?
  • Is this the story that you, as the facilitator of the story, should be telling or can someone else? Are you connected to, part of, or a member of this individual’s community? This, especially, is a critical question for white folks telling stories of people and communities of color, able-bodied people telling the stories of people with disabilities, cisgender people speaking for and telling stories about trans folks, etc.
  • Assess whether the person whose story you’re trying to share is prepared to share their story. If yes, ask for their consent to share. If no, are they open or want to share? If there is openness then how are you providing the technical and emotional support in allowing them to tell their own story?
  • Is their consent informed? Do they know how and where the story will be used? What content it includes? Do they agree with the way you’re sharing how your services have impacted them? Are they able to approve changes and edits? If necessary, do you have written informed consent?
  • Ask yourself if you’re sharing their story with dignity, nuance, and with their humanity intact. Are you oversimplifying or over-sensationalizing their story? Are you prioritizing the voice of the person whose story and experience is being shared over that of the audience or the funders?
  • How can you tell the impact of your organization without exploiting the stories of the individual participants and perpetuating existing narratives about vulnerable or marginalized people and communities?
  • Are you fighting stereotypes and myths or contributing to it? Are you pathologizing them or have you provided sufficient socio-historical and political context?
  • Have you considered who this story helps by telling it?
  • By telling this story, are you showing your organization as a savior?
  • Do you have a process for those who have told their story to have the agency to retract consent/permission? This means if you’ve used their story, they can take back their permission and consent to no longer share or highlight their story.

Lastly, considering putting your money behind your values and convictions and offer to compensate people for their stories. Even if they’re receiving services from your organization. The stories you’re telling are directly connected to financial benefits for organizations. It’s only right those same funds benefit them as well.

I encourage you to create your own guidelines that align with the mission and values of your organization and your personal identities.

 

This article was originally published on Rainier Valley Corps’ Change-Makers blog and is reprinted here with permission.

There are trees, and there is forest. There are anecdotes, and there is data. There are the pinprick pixels of our individual experiences, and there is the vast picture they paint together of the world we share.

The M+R Benchmarks Study is our annual attempt to bridge that divide. This year, we have collected an extensive array of data points from 154 nonprofit participants. Each of them marks a single digital interaction with a supporter: an email opened, a donation made, a petition signed, a website visited, an ad clicked, a Facebook post liked, or tweet retweeted. All told, these add up to 4,699,299,330 email messages, 527,754,635 web visits, and 11,958,385 donations.

NTEN is proud to partner with M+R once again for the latest Benchmarks report. Explore or download it here.

 

It took me three months into my social media dream job to realize why the word “online” was part of my job title. It was 2010, and I had finally found a job that had social media marketing at its heart, at a small AIDS nonprofit that planned to use Facebook, Twitter and dating apps to connect with people living with and at risk for HIV.

Even before my first day, I’d had a run-in with our horrible, outdated and very difficult website, but I knew there was a web developer on retainer and I figured it was his problem. Or maybe it was the Executive Director’s problem. Or perhaps the office administrator. I don’t suppose there was someone on the board who could help? A volunteer? Bueller?

As anyone who works in digital marketing or fundraising knows, your organization’s website is at the crux of how people relate to your organization and its work. When something is wrong, it hurts your ability to attract, engage, and convert the people you need to make your work a success. As it turned out, our website was my problem, and to solve it, we needed to build a working digital strategy.

What is a digital strategy?

For many nonprofits, technology adoption isn’t hard. We’re smart people, and we’re perfectly capable of finding the tools we need to help us perform particular tasks. But what often happens is that an organization will accrue a slew of tools, all of which maybe do what they should perfectly, but still aren’t getting the results that you need them to. Perhaps your content strategy is bringing scores of people to your website but you aren’t capturing them in your email list for fundraising campaigns, or you’re gaining lots of Instagram followers but none of them know about your online forum. A good digital strategy will knit your tools and aspirations together into a cohesive plan to meet your goals.

We’re here to help. NTEN is producing two conferences this fall—in New Mexico and Oregon—and both are designed to help you develop and refresh your digital strategy. The program includes case studies, workshops, panels, presentations, and tactical sessions, to help you formulate the best strategy for your organization, and show you how other nonprofits have done it.

That seems like a big task. Where do I even start?

I am a people person and NTEN relies on members to survive, so I like to start with personas. What are the groups of people that want to engage with your organization, how did they find you, what do they want to know, how do they want to engage, and what do you most want them to do? Plot their journey from an unconnected community member to engaged part of your inner circle, donor or member. What’s their ideal journey? What roadblocks are in the way right now? How can you clear them?

Identify the top handful of actions you really want your constituents to take—for example, donate, advocate, join or inform others—and consider the technologies they need to do that easily. Find data that can tell you how you successfully moved them to that action (or “converted” them, in marketing-speak). How many touch-points do you need? What’s the story to tell them, and where and how is it best told? Which are the channels that net you the most success, and why do you think that is?

Like me, when I finally realized the website monster was mine to tame, you will have a lot of questions. But it’s only through considering the (sometimes difficult) questions that you can build a digital strategy, pulling together your organization’s disparate parts and making them work better, for you and the communities you represent.

Best of luck! We hope to see you in the fall.

Jamie Littlefield is a Digital Inclusion Fellow and a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference.

In too many communities, digital inclusion is a challenge without local owners.

Unless your organization is specifically dedicated to digital inclusion or digital literacy, it can feel like a less tangible cause and perhaps a less important cause than, say, poverty or inequality.

When I was a high school English teacher, my colleagues were so worried about the need for our low-income school to perform well on standardized tests that many felt we didn’t have time to take students to the computer lab. Someone else would have to be responsible for that.

Later, when I was a college instructor, there was a lot of discussion about what the English department should be responsible for. Sure, we were committed to literacy. But, were we also the gatekeepers of academic literacy and digital literacy? It seemed like too much.

Now that I’m a Digital Inclusion Fellow with a nonprofit host, there still seem to be a lot of competing priorities. How can digital inclusion be important when we’re also dealing with homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, and families in crisis?

The answer: Digital inclusion is a part of every battle.

The shifting of information from the physical to the digital form makes it so. To fully participate in education, access community resources, and be a part of the democratic process, people must have access to the internet, working devices, and technical skills.

If you fight for literacy, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight against poverty, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight for equality, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight for resilient neighborhoods, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight against homelessness, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight for women’s rights, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

If you fight for refugees, digital inclusion is a part of your fight.

Perhaps, like me, you work for an organization that isn’t focused on digital inclusion alone. If so, there are a few ways you can weave it into the work you’re already doing.

Map out how information is reaching your clients.

Look at the information you’re providing online. Review your website, your social media accounts, and any smartphone apps.

Is there information that can’t be acquired unless a client has access to a computer and knows how to use it? If so, consider providing paper copies of important information and showing clients where they can go to get internet access and one-on-one help if they need it.

At the United Way of Utah County, we developed a tri-fold brochure to give to clients participating in targeted programs. The brochures, available in both English and Spanish, give simple explanations for how readers can access our Library Computer Help Lab or enroll in our Adopt-a-Computer-Program. They also explain where readers can use public computers, get free access to the internet, and find discounted home connections.

Even if your organization isn’t providing the tech help itself, can you find or create a guide for clients who need this information?

Look for opportunities to transform competing priorities into complementary priorities

Some of the most successful digital inclusion projects at the United Way of Utah County have been carefully tied into existing, well-known programs.

For example, at Sub-for-Santa application events we set up tables with Chromebooks, brochures, computer class sign-up sheets, and consultants who spoke both English and Spanish.

Through multiple night and weekend events, we provided personalized tech consultations about devices, internet access, and programs to 735 families. We were able to turn an existing program into an asset (rather than a competitor) and target the families most in need of our services.

Train staff to see digital inclusion as a part of their toolkit of solutions

Digital inclusion isn’t a problem competing with poverty. It’s a part of a holistic solution to poverty. And, a part of the solution to many other programs.

As a Digital Inclusion Fellow, I’ve made an effort to work with staff and send out success stories that show how digital inclusion can impact other areas of focus (even when those stories sound a little braggy).

In one email, I shared the story of Thomas. This Adopt-a-Computer participant showed up to the Computer Help Lab for ten hours of training. Working with our mentors, he learned job search essentials and applied to half a dozen positions online. The day he got to take home his refurbished computer was the same day he got a call offering him much-needed employment. We celebrated with high-fives.

With his permission, I told his story to other stakeholders in my community. Yes, this is a story about digital inclusion. But, it’s also a story about poverty, education, job skills, and many other causes that organizations in my community are working to address.

Our collective responsibility

By nature, digital inclusion is an issue that cannot be addressed by digital inclusion organizations alone. No matter what our cause or focus, when we find ways to weave inclusion into our work, we increase our ability to do the greatest good.

 

Client names have been changed.

Data is an incredibly valuable tool. It allows us to observe, understand and assess our work. Importantly, data can also be used to tell our work’s story. Through metrics, measures, charts, and graphs, we can effectively highlight the impact of our work in ways that make current and potential donors take note.

As with any tool, we have an ethical responsibility to use it correctly. When it comes to using data for storytelling, we must find a way to be persuasive without being deceptive.

Do most organizations intend to deceive their audiences with data? Absolutely not! That said, it is easy to fall into some common traps when it comes to interpreting results or displaying information for our audience.

Fortunately, with just a few easy steps, we can ensure that we are crafting our stories responsibly and effectively.

Actively combat confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that agrees with what you already believe, and to discount opinions and data that disprove your beliefs. Whenever you embark on an analytical journey, keep an open mind and understand that the data may or may not confirm your hypothesis, and it may not always tell the story for which you are hoping.

To avoid bias, you can:

  • Enlist colleagues to help you do a bias check. Have them challenge your assumptions and the data you use to support them.

Choose the right way to display your data.

Using data to tell the story of your work relies heavily upon your ability to visualize your data.  There are many ways to do this, and even the same data can be visualized differently depending on the point you are trying to make.  This is the most helpful tool I’ve found in helping to decide what type of visualization will work best for your goal.

Once you choose how you will display your data, the first thing to consider is scale.

Take a look at the chart below. Which pie segment is the largest?

a pie chart split into 3 equal segments, with the bottom orange segment appearing largest because the image is 3D

Did you say the orange segment? In fact, each segment is exactly one-third of the pie.

A 2-dimensional pie chart split into three equal parts, so that all parts appear equal to the eye

This 3D visual distorts your perception and encourages you to mistakenly interpret the data.

Let’s look at another example. In the column charts below, it appears that there is a significant different between the columns on the left, but a small difference between the columns on the right.

2 2-column charts next to each other, with the one on the left appearing to show a greater difference

In fact, both of these charts us the same data but a different scale. The chart on the left overemphasizes the difference between the two columns by using a smaller range of numbers for the vertical axis.

2 2-column charts next to each other, this time with number showing the percentage difference

If someone were to use the scale on the left without explaining the actual small difference between the two columns, the discrepancy could be misinterpreted by the audience as much more substantial than it actually is.

Provide the appropriate context.

Are you being irresponsible if you use a chart that emphasizes a difference? Absolutely not! But you would need to provide the appropriate context so the audience knows how to interpret what they are seeing. That’s the job of the data visualizer, to clearly communicate what the audience should walk away knowing.

Here is an example of how to provide appropriate context for your story:

A column chart depicting a 5% difference, with accompanying text: This program was a success! We increased our donor engagement by 5% without spending a dime!

Data has tremendous potential to help purpose-driven organizations make smarter decisions, gain new insights, and effectively tell a story that is both persuasive and ethically sound. For more tips on how to effectively tell your story with data, check out the Data Playbook, and specifically the section on Communicating Results.

Are you using data to share the story of your work? Share your ideas with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation to help expand this community resource.

 

“I love where this is, you’re going to knock ‘em dead, but I still think the presentation needs more kids in it.” Roland, the founder of Power Poetry was exactly right—I always tend to lead with too much data when making a point. A persuasive presentation must balance the data with the emotional hook, and as usual, Roland reminded me it is about the hundreds of thousands of young poets. We were strategizing about my upcoming Ignite talk at the 16NTC. We wanted to capture the growth story of the largest online poetry platform for young people in the country. Roland continued: “We have to go minds, hearts, and then wallets with this. So, how many people are there, and when are you going to be presenting?”

I described the audience of 2,000 nonprofit techies, when I would be presenting during the event, and whom I would try to connect with. “OK, it will be tough going on the last day. I am sure people will be tired, so take that into account. Remember this is about literacy; this is about empowering young people through the transformative nature of poetry. You’re going to do great. I really wish I could be there.”

Something in the room started beeping and the nurse came in pausing our planning session. Over the past year we hadn’t talked about his cancer and instead kept focused on the work of Power Poetry as we had been doing over the past 5 years of working together. This conversation was the last time we were able to talk in person.

Roland’s Moon Shot

Roland joked many times about our first meeting, “I didn’t understand half the things out of your mouth, but I trusted you knew how to execute my vision.” Roland was the founder of Power Writers, an in-school poetry teaching program that gave rise to the documentary To Be Heard, a story of the transformative impact the program had on 3 young writers in the group. I remember thinking his vision of closing the youth literacy gap in the country through the vehicle of poetry was a moon shot, but his passion was unshakeable. He opened my eyes to the fact that three out of five U.S. prisoners are illiterate, and that the school to prison pipeline is real and is destroying the young people in our country (Source: National Institute for Literacy). I opened his eyes to the power of web platforms to scale and talked him out of building an app.

I deferred to Roland on the content and brand ethos of Power Poetry; he deferred to me on the technical infrastructure and marketing mechanisms. Roland went up the digital learning curve quickly, and became versed in the Google Analytics data that dictated the platform’s success. Our focus on KPIs—number of poems and poets—helped us to stay on the same page when making critical decisions about new feature development or addressing bugs. We were able to quickly test different feature ideas and measure them against the critical metrics of poems and poets generated. Ideas that I thought would originally work, like SMS poetry submissions, turned out to be nightmare (Lesson: teens have a lot more than 165 characters of poetry in them). Ideas that Roland created—like online poetry slams that gave teens a focused topic to write about—turned out to be silver bullets that spurred our growth. We were never afraid to try new ideas and kill the ones that didn’t drive our KPIs.

From the day we launched, it took three years to reach 300k poets on the platform with just as many poems created. With a tiny staff of three, which at one point also included my sister Zee Hoffmann Jones, Power Poetry became the largest poetry platform for teen poetry in the country.

“If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you”

Roland and my last project together was a video training series for teachers interested in teaching poetry in the Power Writers’ style. The training launched on UDemy on April 20, the same day that Roland passed away. Within 24 hours, the training had over 400 people signed up without any promotion, which means Roland continues teaching poetry.

In his final year, Roland organized the To Be Heard Foundation to be the parent nonprofit of both the Power Writers and Power Poetry programs. Its simple mission is to continue this amazing work of helping youth discover their voices and improve their literacy through the power of poetry. The motto of the organization is, “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” I serve on the board of the foundation and act as the co-founder/CTO of Power Poetry with the goal of reaching 1 million young poets by 2023—a promise I made in the NTC presentation and to Roland.

George Weiner's 16NTC Ignite presentation

In the presentation at the 16NTC, I closed by saying that this was a story of leveraging technology to enable a small team to achieve outsized results. In truth, for me, it is a story of trust and vision between a poet and a technologist. “The Pain and Poetry of Building A Platform,” the title of my Ignite talk carried a different meaning to me than it did the NTC audience. I am grateful to the NTEN Community for choosing our Ignite presentation and to the team for recording and quickly sharing the presentation in time for Roland to see it. It gave us tremendous pleasure be able to plan for it together before he left the Power Poetry team.

Photo credit: The Nuyorican

Nervous. Anxious. Vulnerable.

That’s how I felt the first time I stood in front of a group and told my own story of how fossil fuels had impacted my family and why I got involved in the climate and environmental movement. Still, when you tell your story on a digital platform, it can be far more intimidating. Suddenly, you find yourself sharing a piece of your personal life with thousands, or even millions, of strangers.

Personal stories are a powerful way for nonprofits to share the importance of their work while highlighting community experiences and inspiring action. But personal stories must be approached with care. It’s essential that storytelling is rooted in authenticity, respect, relationship building, and accountability.

As a National Online Organizer at the Sierra Club, I’ve had the privilege of working with brave and inspiring people to share their stories about some of the most pressing climate and environmental issues. I’ve used email and social media to share personal stories about Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Flint, the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history, the Pope’s climate-focused encyclical, and economic diversification for coal communities.

Recognizing that every story and experience is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all process to follow, there are some tips and lessons I’ve found helpful in my work sharing personal stories digitally.

Getting Started

Storytelling is about a relationship, not a transaction. Sharing something personal requires a lot of trust, so this isn’t necessarily the time to look for new partners. However, it can be a good opportunity to celebrate the work and elevate the experiences of community members and volunteers whom your staff works with regularly.

Similarly, most of the stories I have worked on have come from existing relationships. One example is Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club volunteer who was instrumental in exposing the toxic FEMA trailers that were making Katrina-impacted communities sick. I learned about Becky’s story through her relationship with Leslie Fields, the director of our environmental justice program, and reached out based on that recommendation.

Tips

  • Think about the audience you’re trying to reach with your story and whose perspective will matter to them
  • Work with your staff and volunteers who know the community well to reach out to potential storytellers
  • Plan ahead: How will your team collaborate with the storyteller to provide feedback? What will you do if something comes out of the story that doesn’t fit your goals or narrative? How will you make sure the storyteller has a positive experience?

Choosing a Medium

Social media and email each come with their own set of challenges. It’s important to consider these challenges as you decide how to share the story. Make sure the storyteller is comfortable with the medium and the ways in which you’re using their name and identity.

When I worked with Becky to share her story, we discussed the pros and cons of social media and email and decided to create a graphic and a social media post.

Email Pros and Cons

  • Allows for more detailed storytelling and a fully developed narrative, but that also means your storyteller must be willing and able to give the time it takes to develop a longer story
  • In many cases, an email story will need to include calls to action and connect with a specific ask. It can be a challenge to make this work in an authentic way

Social Media Pros and Cons

  • Great for stories with visuals or audio. However, it’s important to ensure the storyteller is comfortable with any images you use and that you avoid images that could be misleading
  • It’s difficult to tell a full story in a social media post. This makes social media a good option for someone who is interested in sharing their story but may not have the time it takes to develop an email story
  • Sharing a story on social media opens the storyteller up to criticism on a public forum; they have to be prepared for and comfortable with that risk

Developing the Story

Every storyteller will have a different level of comfort and experience with sharing their story. When I reached out to Becky about her story, I learned that she had a background as a reporter and didn’t need more from me than some general guidelines, a word count, and a deadline. Other storytellers may prefer to answer questions and let you create the narrative. I try to give storytellers a range of options and let them decide what makes them feel most comfortable.

Tips

  • Be prepared with a list of open-ended interview questions and examples of other personal stories in case the storyteller finds this information helpful
  • Be flexible and let the storyteller take the lead in writing if they’re comfortable doing so
  • If you do an interview, record the storyteller’s words as accurately as possible and make sure the final story reflects their word choices

Publishing

One of the biggest challenges of digital storytelling is creating a story that’s true to the storyteller’s voice and fits within the confines of an email or social media post. It’s critical to keep the storyteller involved in any editing to be sure the final product is authentic and accurate.

Similarly, I didn’t think it would be fair to write about sharing Becky’s story without input from Becky. I reached out to her again recently to get her advice. She emphasized the importance of a collaborative editing process and called on her own expertise as a reporter: “Check and double-check accuracy before you post anything. Writing a personal story should be more a collaboration with the source, not just doing a phone or email interview and writing something up without letting the subject have input.”

Tips

  • Work collaboratively with the storyteller to edit and finalize the story
  • If someone at your organization has an existing relationship with the storyteller try to keep them involved in the process. They can help flag if something doesn’t feel authentic and help make the storyteller feel more comfortable
  • Don’t omit details the storyteller identifies as important, even if they may not seem important to you

 

Storytelling is a buzzword that is used everywhere in the nonprofit world these days. But nonprofit storytelling is not connected to advocacy as much as it could be. Everyone in advocacy needs to be able to tell a compelling story about why your issue matters and how it relates to people. Storytelling allows potential supporters to connect with your organization in an immediate and meaningful way.

That said, storytelling for advocacy can be a tricky proposition involving the intersections of organizational dynamics, organizational structure, and grassroots organizing. Here are 15 easy ways your organization can tap into the power of storytelling.

  1. Imagine your target audience. Knowing who you are trying to reach and persuade is fundamental for advocacy. Although I believe everyone has a good story to tell, understanding who you’re speaking to will truly connect with your audience.
  1. Storytelling makes your issue come to life. Putting personality behind your issue can take lifeless statistics and connect it with real emotion. A good story told by the right person can connect with elected officials and constituents in a way that a monotone PowerPoint cannot. Think people, not Prezis.
  1. Build a culture of storytelling. Have everyone in your organization—from your president to your interns— be on the look out for compelling stories. Your entire team should be keeping an ear out for good stories. It’s not always an easy process, but encouraging everyone to get involved will make it easier.
  1. Create a process for storytelling. What happens when a great story is identified? Who in your advocacy organization will collect the story? How should interviews take place? Who will train and work with the storytellers? Having a process for advocacy storytelling will ensure that it becomes part of your organization’s culture and isn’t just a one-off event.
  1. Invent storytelling personas. A storyteller persona has all of the components to help you recruit the right person to be a story teller for your group or organization. To better understand your organization’s ideal storytelling personas, ask yourself the following questions: What stories do want to tell? Who is the ideal storyteller? What is the ideal demographic? What is the ideal location?
  1. Identify your ideal persona. Once you’ve created an outline of your persona, start to define the details of the ideal persona for your issue. If you could pick anyone to tell their story, who would it be and why? Dig deep and explain the ideal characteristics of your persona. What is their location? Age? Gender? Race? How about other characteristics? And beyond the basic persona, who else is affected by this issue?
  1. Begin recruiting storytellers. Now that you’ve imagined your ideal persona, begin searching for real people who reflect your imagined storyteller. Remember: Recruitment does not happen overnight, so don’t expect to go live with your video tomorrow or even next week.

Storytelling for advocacy can be a ton of work. Identifying the stories you want and finding the people who own that story is not an easy process, but it will help show your organization’s human side. Keep in mind that your personas should be a guide, but your storytellers in real life might look different than your ideal personas. And that’s okay.

  1. Quantity v. quality. Think about how many stories you need. By mapping out your personas, you can answer the quantity question. But quality is always important. Finding members and advocates who have a real story to tell takes time and effort. It’s important to dedicate time to find the right people.
  1. Consider how you’ll tell the story. There are so many ways to tell stories. Your organization could write blog posts based on Q&A’s with your storytellers. You could create a video featuring your storyteller. You could interview your storyteller and create a testimonial based on their responses. Whichever avenue you decide to take, having someone on your team pre-interview your storyteller will help clarify which approach will work best.

For example, you might have identified someone with a wonderful story, but perhaps the person is shy or unwilling to go on camera. Instead of losing their story, find another way to share their words, like an oral interview that’s transcribed into a written Q&A.

  1. Keep in mind who owns the story. Organizations may say they want to tell a story, but it does not mean they will embrace it. Buy-in from the leaders of your organization is critical to sharing your organization’s most authentic stories. But, telling a story is not a top-down affair. The more you constrain the story, the more manufactured it will sound and the less real it will feel. Trusting your storyteller will empower them, which will come across in their words and create a more emotional connection with the audience.
  1. Applicability of the story. Just because the story seems compelling, it does not mean it is applicable for your organization’s needs. The more you know of your advocacy personas, the easier it is to focus in on the type of advocates you need.

Don’t get me wrong—keeping an open mind is great and having a diversity of voices when it comes to advocates is critical. But focusing on the stories that are most applicable to your organization will be more beneficial in the long run.

  1. Plan your interview. When you’re pre-interviewing a potential storyteller, asking broad questions first will help them get comfortable. Then, work toward the more specific questions, which will be closer to the heart of your issue. It will likely take time to get to the core of the story, but giving your storyteller time to relax and acquainted with you is worth it.
  1. Make storytellers comfortable. Let your storyteller know their story has value and that their words matter. Assure them that their effort can make a real difference. Remind your storyteller they have taken on an important task that your organization is committed to sharing in a respectful way.

Consider lots of different factors when planning your interviews and pre-interviews. Having water and snacks handy is always a good thing, but that’s not enough. Should a translator be present? Is your storyteller sharing something emotional?

Create a welcoming environment and make sure they have everything they need to feel valued and welcome, including space. It there are pauses and silences during the interview, don’t break them or put words in the storyteller’s mouth. Give your storytellers room to think and compose themselves.

  1. Finding storytellers is not easy. Recruitment is usually the biggest hurdle to getting a story about an issue told in a compelling way, but other issues come up as well. You might get a great story from a storyteller, but they might tell you they’re no longer comfortable going public with the story. You might conduct an entire interview, only to find out later that your recorder app ate the story—making it seemingly vanish forever. You might have to keep rescheduling with storytellers. Plan to work with more storytellers than you think you need—things will come up.
  1. Create a simple call to action. No matter how you share your storyteller’s words—on a blog post or a video on Facebook or a combination of many different mediums—you should always end with a clear call to action. What do you want views to do next? How can they get involved?

Remember: it’s better to have a straightforward call to action than a complex list of ways they can help. You can always test out different calls to action on different stories or change the call to action later, but keeping it simple is always best.

Anyone who’s new to social media and community engagement can attest: There are dozens of articles published weekly on the subject. If you add up “The 8 Essential Things You Must Do on Social Media” plus “The Top 10 Things Every Community Manager Should Know” plus “The Top 20 Ways to Rock Twitter,” it all adds up to a LOT of details, a lot of advice, and sometimes…a lot of noise.

Of course, it’s hugely helpful to get tips, and it’s wise to seek new ideas and strategies. But in my experience, there are a few basics that make engagement work—and they’re not driven by hashtags or apps or vanity metrics…or even That One Weird Old Trick. To illustrate what’s worked for our community, let me paint a picture.

Imagine you are on a camping trip with a whole bunch of people you hardly know. You want to bring people together, so you build a fire under the starlit sky. You know your fire will burn hot, so before you light it, you encircle the kindling with stones. You light it and, indeed, it begins to burn brightly. You are warmed by the glow, and others are drawn by the heat. As people gather, you invite them to sit down. To interest even more people, you begin to tell a story—an old favorite that also has a great embedded moral, something you actually believe really deeply. Then you invite someone else to the front to tell a story—but before they start, you call out to the people in the back, “You’re welcome to build your own fire; there’s wood over there.” And the stories resume, and in the circle of connected, expectant faces, the warmth continues to grow…and in the distance, you see the first sparks of a new fire.

This is community engagement.

Values

The warm, bright fire in the story above is the core of everything you do—it is the collective values that are deepest and most essential to your work. It’s the reason you took this job. It’s why your organization exists. It’s more basic even than your mission statement. It could be, “All people deserve to live with dignity,” or, “The right to vote is inalienable,” or, “We must protect natural life on this planet.”

Your core values should drive every aspect of what you do. If you build your work around this, you will draw in an engaged community of people who share (partially or wholly) those values. They are subconsciously saying, “This is true in my experience. This is my moral universe. I want to align my life (or at least my reading) more around these core truths.”

(Pro tip: speaking from a deeply held truth every day will give you HUGE job satisfaction.)

Mission

Before you lit your fire, you drew a circle of stones around it. This is your organization’s mission. It’s how you express those values in the world. It’s how you focus your efforts. Maybe your organization cannot get the vote for every person on the planet. But your organization can work tirelessly to re-enfranchise voters in the American South. And this guides your content strategy; you may then choose to focus your efforts by profiling an American civil rights leader like Ella Baker instead of Nelson Mandela.

Voice and Story

Whether they know it or not, every organization tells a story. And it’s up to you how you shape that narrative, how believable it is, and who its hero is.

At The Story of Stuff Project, we tell the same story over and over again. “We have a problem with Stuff. We make too much of it, and we trash people and the planet all along the way, from extraction to disposal. Each of us has the power to change the story. Global citizens are the heroes who can take action to build a world that is more sustainable, fair, and fun.” Sometimes it takes a little digging to uncover the real story you want to tell. Consider Humans of New York. It’s one of the most viral pages on Facebook. All they post is quotes with pictures. Stop and take a moment right now and ask yourself: what is the Humans of New York story?

And how about the storyteller? At Story of Stuff, we believe in using a voice that is friendly and straightforward. It’s clear and simple but never dumbed down. In this way, we invite our global community, including and especially people those whose first language is not English, to participate. What’s your voice? (Just a hint: your organization’s voice may sound a lot like its founder or Executive Director. Evaluate whether this works for your community.) If you’re the person managing social media, it’s also helpful to examine how your organization’s voice is (and is not) similar to your own personal voice.

"leadership can come from anywhere. You don't have to be a certain type of person or have a certain type of education to be a leader. You just have to be willing to throw yourself into the fight. That's all it takes." - Julian Bond

When you’re clear on your values, your mission, and your voice, the way to finding or creating content that amplifies them is clear, too. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re sharing from the New York Times, The Onion, or your own blog, as long as you’re getting the message out there and inviting great conversation.

You may also use certain core phrases or themes to tie all this together. For us, it’s “Growing Solutions.” We’ve done a lot of coverage of the water situation in Flint. And we found some good explanatory pieces, but we also found that a lot of the media coverage paints the community as helpless victims. So we took some time out to profile citizen changemakers in Flint—the people who rolled up their sleeves, demanded answers, and didn’t stop until they got help for the people of their town. This is how we were able to bust open a mainstream narrative and tell a story that centers around people power.

A Community of Heroes

We all know we need our supporters. But you can take your engagement strategy to the next level when you imagine each of them as heroes, without whom the story will not continue. Can you profile community leaders on your blog? Retweet them? Turn their well-written comment into a share-graphic? Enable (and moderate) discussion on your blog?

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and their stories are often incomplete when you meet. So be sure you have a process in place for monitoring their journey and telling their story when it is ready. We jumped at the chance to not only profile a young zero waste media superstar but also tell the story of Marianne, who convinced her entire city to throw a simultaneous garage sale on the same day…for the last 25 years.

The Hero’s Journey

Ultimately, you want your supporters to DO something. To sign up, to donate, to attend events, to become leaders. All those how-to articles I mentioned in the opening will give you tech ideas for how to support that journey. What I’d say to you is this: shine a light on how people can take the actions that align with their fiercely held beliefs. Offer the tools or hold the space for them to do so…and then get out of their way as they boldly charge forward.

It’s that simple: lead with what you love; invite and encourage dialogue; reflect the community back to itself; provide a clear pathway forward. And then watch your community come together to accomplish amazing things.

P.S. I can’t leave you without one foolproof practical tip. So here it is. GET VISUAL. Every social share you create should have a great image. Sized correctly for the channel, clear, sharp, and ideally with a person or really striking center of focus. How do you make those images? Don’t settle for “easy” image creation services like Canva; they’ll hold you back creatively. Adobe now offers stand-alone Photoshop for a low monthly rate; Creative Commons is a great place to source imagery; and Lynda.com offers great tutorials.

Finally: don’t forget to have fun.