Who Brands Your Nonprofit? Who Tells Its Story and How?

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Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s summer 2014 edition, “21st-Century Communications: Authenticity Matters.”


Dr. David Denborough, a pioneer in narrative therapy, says “who we are and what we do” is influenced by the stories we tell about ourselves. “We take certain events and link them together into a plot or theme. And this plot or theme about our lives then shapes our identities.” In his book, Retelling the Stories of our Lives, he explains that self-image is deeply influenced by how we frame events in our past: “If we tell stories that emphasize only desolation, then we become weaker. Alternatively, we can tell our stories in ways that makes us stronger, in ways that soothes the loses, in ways that ease the sorrow.” This process requires deep reflection, where one is able to see their own storyline, discover inspiring themes, address negative assumptions, and rewrite deeply held scripts.

Organizational identity within the nonprofit sector is also shaped by stories. Unfortunately, the very makeup of the institution and the demands to prove the value, relevancy and effectiveness of its work creates the need for a simplified narrative—one that veers away from the complexity of addressing difficult, sometimes unsolvable issues toward a heroic journey that leads to proof of success. As these types of narratives have proliferated, nonprofit storytelling has become homogenized, with organizations making use of similar plotlines, structures, and conventions in order to express impact. How can we strengthen our identities if we only project a one-dimensional portrait that is controlled though a single point of view?

When management at the Minnesota Orchestra locked their musicians out over a contract dispute, each side tried to control the message. Eventually, a frustrated and angry public voice began to be heard, applying a new kind of pressure to the negotiations. Town hall meetings were held and new coalitions were formed, independent of both groups. What was once considered a world-class orchestra had letters to the editor in the major daily on a weekly basis sharing the public’s side of the story and offering unsolicited opinions and strategies to both sides. Even after they settled, during their first concert back audience members yelled back at the opening speeches, calling for the return of the Orchestra’s beloved music director and the firing of the organization’s president.

Public ownership of a cause and organization has never been stronger. The evolution of communicating in a socially-connected world has shown that there is very little patience for audience constraint. Instead, the need to contribute to and shape the narrative has become commonplace. Particularly within the nonprofit sector, stories, and thus an organization’s identity, exist within the public domain. Through storytelling, when effectively guided, both internal and external publics can be given the opportunity to contribute to the creation of a meaningful narrative. A stronger bond is formed when our participants, donors, and community members, along with staff and volunteers, see themselves less as stakeholders and more as story shapers.

On a breezy winter day in Tacoma, Washington, the staff and board of Associated Ministries sat in a large circle in a church gymnasium. The day’s agenda focused on 1) deconstructing the mission, 2) aligning with impact, 3) raising voices, and 4) sharing stories. As members of the group began to articulate their experiences working with individuals and families in poverty, the stories came forth unfiltered. In one instance, a client was stuck in a cycle of bad relationships. Another was seeking a last chance at some stability for her family. In all, none of the stories had pat endings. What was revealed, in Shakespeare’s words, was “the quality of mercy.” Through subtle yet moving moments, these stories conveyed the humanity of both the story’s main character and the storyteller. It presented the challenges Associated Ministries is tasked to address and it framed the impact of its work within the ambiguity of the lives of the people they serve. As the day came to a close, a co-created narrative began to emerge; this larger story spoke to a deeper purpose of their work, but also to how it could be improved and become more effective at meeting need. Here, through deep reflection around mission, impact, and the power of the individual and group voice, Associated Ministries strengthened their identity—because, in the end, the larger story was owned by everyone in the room.

Harnessing the power of co-creation requires letting go. Particularly with organizational identity and messaging, there is an inherent need to control every word. Consistency is often valued over accessibility. Researchers at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations found that successful nonprofit brands have elements of democracy baked into them, trusting that the “story shapers” mentioned earlier have an understanding of the organization’s core identity. If organizations want greater community ownership of the cause, then they need to allow staff, volunteers, participants, and the greater public a true opportunity of ownership.

  • Recently, the American Craft Council has led a series of conversations around exploring the identity of craft in America. They asked questions that delved into the experiences people have in relationship to making, sharing, and buying craft. What they did not ask is “What is craft?” That would have created a divisive argument when they were seeking to bring people together. Instead, they went in search of shared values, knowing that this would serve as the glue needed to strengthen a growing community of people.
  • Creative Care for Reaching Independence, a Moorhead, Minnesota-based provider of services for people with disabilities, encouraged one of their care providers to make a video of clients and staff with members of the Moorhead community signing and dancing to a Taylor Swift song and inviting the young pop star to their upcoming walk event. The result, after being posted to YouTube, went viral. The low-budget video is filled with joy. Above all, it is authentic. Creative Care’s executive director, Shannon Bock, put it best: “It’s our principles in action.”
  • On the donor wall of the Commonweal Theatre is a subtle but bold reminder of public ownership. Sitting on rows of shelves are mason jars filled with mementoes provide by supporters, each with their own story, no one jar more important than the other, together expressing the vitality of who this theater’s audience is.

Whereas the impact of Creative Care’s “viral video” might seem like luck, they were able to successfully leverage the passion of their community to co-create a narrative that illustrates what they stand for. In short, they figured out how to pivot from telling a story to sharing a story. This is an important distinction. When we share a story, we create a context and structure in which others can relate and contribute. Telling a story creates a reaction; sharing a story creates a relationship. The former is a promotional tactic, the latter a means of making mission impact possible. Organizations that recognize the difference are able to create space for the public to engage in collaboration to shape and address a relevant and meaningful cause. In addition, as the sector addresses the challenges of measurement and proving the effectiveness of each theory of change, a narrative context that is co-created and utilizes data as key plot points advances credibility. Within the public domain, stories are vetted and assumptions challenged, creating an even stronger case for engagement.

In order to tell our own story, we need to listen to and embrace the stories of those we wish to reach. A story is a gift, not a donor-acquisition strategy. Stories bind us together by allowing us to glimpse the other. And when we glimpse the other, we seek to understand it in all its nuanced glory. It overtakes and ripples across our consciousness, forcing us to reconcile what we are experiencing with what we think we already know. So why would we diminish the story of our work by placing it into such a simplified context?


Carlo M. Cuesta is the managing partner of Creation In Common, a national consultancy helping nonprofit organizations enhance their power to engage the public.

  • Andrea Robertson

    I LOVE this perspective. “A story is a gift, not a donor acquisition strategy.” So true! I couldn’t agree more with the author about the benefits of collaborating with your public to develop branding and communicate about your organization. This is very timely for my organization and an inspiring message.

  • Radha Kunke

    Excellent points being made. It is always an angst to see nonprofit work and stories being templatised into one single story, until one has started tuning out… see a farmer’s picture and one knows what the story is going to be about. A picture of a woman with a pot on her head, and you know it will be the same old narrative.

    No. Something else is needed. Something that can show the complexity, the nuances of the work and issues.

    As nonprofits, perhaps we are defeating ourselves with our storytelling.

    Radha

  • John Godfrey

    A great article. It resonates on a number of levels. On the personal level it prompted reflection on how I tell my narrative. On the professional level it reinforced and clarified my understanding of the significance of storytelling in building a case for support for a nonprofit. Significantly, the article describes the benefits of including multiple voices in telling the organizations story – “letting go” not controlling every element.

  • Thaler Pekar

    Yes! Thank you, Carlos, for this terrific piece. Storytelling is, indeed, only half the story – stories also foster connectivity and knowledge sharing. And stories can not be taken from an individual and “sold” to a donor. For more on the ethics of working with story, see: http://exhaleisprovoice.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/thaler-pekars-ethical-storysharing-roundup/

  • Maria Chilcott

    Really interesting perspective on storytelling, thanks. When the donors/supporters are included in the creation of non-profit stories it can be such a powerful outcome – and so authentic, which donors are looking for – so important for building trust. Storytelling is such an essential tool for deepening relationships with donors, especially with the opportunity for the stories to be shared on social media. Thanks Carlo.