6 Tips for Building a Culture of Storytelling At Your Nonprofit

A version of this blog post appeared on the Ad Council blog.

We’re all storytellers. Some of us are more intentional about the stories we tell, or more artful, but at the end of the day, we all tell stories through what we say and what we do. This is true not just for individuals but also for organizations. If everyone you hire is from one demographic… that’s part of your story. If you actively collaborate with partners, or prefer to work in isolation… again, that’s part of your story, as much as any social media promotion or the About page of your website.

I gave a talk earlier today (wearing my Good Things Consulting hat) at the Nonprofit Technology Conference about helping nonprofits tell more effective stories – and by “effective,” I mean both strategic (designed to help you reach a stated goal, like, “get people to donate”) and authentic. On the power of authentic storytelling, Dr. Pamela Rutledge (@pamelarutledge), Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, has this to say:

“When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change.”

Here are 6 tips for building a culture of storytelling at your organization:

  1. Get your house in order
    Take stock of how you describe yourself on your website and various social media channels. Are you telling a consistent story? (If the answer is “yes” – congrats! Now, challenge yourself further: Are you telling a consistent and compelling story? Storytelling requires imagination. Pretend you don’t live and breathe your organization’s mission, and put yourself in your target audience’s shoes. What language are you using to draw people in?)
  2. Be mindful
    Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. Just like yoga, it’s all about practice — showing up and trying and then showing up and trying again. Be patient. Once you’ve done the foundational work of getting your house in order, begin to pay more attention to the subtle ways in which your organization tells its story day in and day out. What are you sharing on social media? (…and what aren’t you sharing?) How do you describe the organization’s purpose to volunteers? What conferences do you attend, and how do you present yourself at those conferences? Keep eyes and ears open and look for small, incremental ways to tell your story in more effective ways.
  3. Find the influencers
    There’s someone in every organization whose stamp of approval means more than anyone else’s. How can you make that person your ally in incrementally building a culture of storytelling? In addition, if there are resistant staff members you seek to involve in your organization’s storytelling (getting a program staff member to write a blog post, for example), ask yourself, Whom does this person respect? In other words, if you aren’t the best person to make the pitch – find the person who is. Maybe showing that reluctant program staff member that peers they admire are blogging on their organizations’ websites would do the trick.
  4. Get out of your silos
    You can’t tell a holistic version of your organization’s story if you don’t know what’s happening in other departments. Take the time, as they do at the Community Action Partnership in Dover, NH, to have staff from different program areas attend each other’s events. Or simply invite a staff member in another department to lunch. Get out of your organizational silo, too – find opportunities to collaborate and partner with other nonprofits to tell more powerful stories than you could possibly tell alone (and reach each other’s audiences).
  5. Listen – and reflect back
    Great storytelling requires great listening. We live in the age of social media, so if you’re talking without listening, your message is probably falling flat. Philosophically speaking, your stakeholders’ and community members’ stories are part of your story – so take the time to hear them, and to show them that they’re being heard. This could be as simple as a RT or it could be more advanced (though still manageable), like dedicating a section of your website to showcasing member stories. (Half the Sky does this.)
  6. Recruit ambassadors
    Whenever someone shares your nonprofit’s Facebook status, they are essentially volunteering to be an ambassador and to tell your story on your behalf. Encourage this behavior by thanking people when they share your content and reciprocating as appropriate. In addition, look for more formal ways to recruit storytelling ambassadors. At Service Dogs of Virginia, for example, clients (such as veterans and autistic children) receive service dogs for free. The organization asks clients to “pay it forward” by sharing their stories through video, speaking at community events and more. Who can you recruit to tell stories that will help build support for your cause?

View my full presentation on Slideshare.

Need help telling your nonprofit’s story? I’d love to help.

Tell me: How does your organization integrate storytelling into everyday life? What are the main challenges you encounter when telling your organization’s story? What nonprofits or other orgs do the best job of telling authentic, strategic stories? Please share examples, questions and ideas – I’d love to hear from you.  

The room at NTC right before my talk


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