Storytelling is more than just a great way to connect donors and funders to your nonprofit’s mission; it’s something deeply human to share through story. Storytelling is a great way to help people understand what the issues are and how your organization will be addressing them. But only if you are willing to listen and listen deeply.
In April, The Communications Network, an association of foundation communications professionals and Atlanta 57, a branding/consulting firm, surveyed 275 communications leaders, CEOs, and board members at nonprofits and foundations about how what was then the onset of COVID-19 was affecting their organizations. Completed right before the murder of George Floyd, this survey captured themes of pandemic response but also held up the need to change the stories (and actions) the nonprofit and philanthropic world used to communicate the need for change.
A summary of the results appeared as an opinion piece online via the Chronicle of Philanthropy on July 6. While 67% of the respondents predicted profound narrative shifts on racial equity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 19% reported that they were using racial equity to frame the stories used to communicate. If the survey went out again today, I would imagine the results to be quite different, and that would be a positive outcome in these chaotic times.
Here’s another not so good data point from this survey. Just 43% of respondents indicated they seek input from the people they serve when shaping their storytelling. While this survey targeted nonprofit and philanthropic communications professionals and executive leaders, the same cursory method of story also occurs all the time in grant writing. I’ve done it myself for years, before I really reflected on the true meaning of what I was writing.
There’s almost understood but unwritten lexicon of words used to describe “target populations” (which is also not a great description) such as “underserved,” disadvantaged,” and those who live “in the urban core.”
These are code words for Black people with low income. But the real story to tell is not about labeling individuals. Well-documented, long-term systemic racism created “urban cores” not the other way around. And there are ways to tell that story with enough data and sound references to change the tone of needs statements, success stories, and other key pieces of storytelling required in most grant applications. For example, the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances details the differences in wealth by race (found here: https://bit.ly/3jVkatd). For more historical context, you can download for free a copy of Racism in America, A Reader from Harvard University Press at this link https://bit.ly/3gglgxl. These are good places to start exploring the real reasons why those labeling words even exist in the first place. .
Really listening to those your organization serves and including them in the process of gathering and sharing information is another powerful start to effecting true change and transformation. Which is (or should be) what nonprofit work is all about.
If you’re not sure where to being, Julia Campbell is a storytelling powerhouse who helps all kinds of nonprofit professionals discover and disseminate the triumphs and challenges of the people and places they serve. In the latest episode of the Fundraising HayDay podcast, she offers entertainingly sage advice about how to do tell the right story in the right way. At one point in the interview, she explained that good storytelling means inviting the reader (funder/donor/grant reviewer) into a story where we all write the happy ending together.
One of my favorite authors of Young Adult fiction is Libba Bray who said, “There is no greater power on this Earth than story.” But, as any self-respecting fan of Spiderman will tell you, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Together, let’s take on the responsibility to ensure that the stories we gather and tell our donors, program officers, board members, and the public at large are helpful and not hurtful to those we serve.
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