Nonprofit storytelling is a very hot topic lately, although it is hardly a new practice for our sector. But how does storytelling, which appeals to the heart and the imagination, blend with the stringent measurement requirements that so many institutional funders now insist upon? Is there a mixture that works to engage both donors and supporters for the long haul?
For decades, organizations and agencies have used compelling, and at times heartbreaking, stories to raise funds for their cause. Growing up, I remember vividly the commercials for UNICEF and those for the Christian Children’s Fund, where Sally Struthers compared the costs of feeding a malnourished child to buying a cup of coffee or a pack of gum. Using stories to raise support or awareness is a tried-and-true approach, but the forum in which it occurs has changed, as has the need for truly compelling stories.
For better or worse, social media provides us with uninterrupted access to an expansive array of stories and organizational information. Given the proliferation of nonprofit organizations, as well as the significant number of humanitarian and environmental crises on an increasingly local level, competition for nonprofit followers and donors has increased dramatically. Resources are limited, and so is the potential pool of supporters, since people are pulled in multiple directions when situations seem dire on a variety of fronts: melting ice caps, dying polar bears, Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings. That doesn’t even begin to capture issues like childhood obesity, walks for cancer or AIDS, and unprecedented global famines. The list of issues is immense, so people’s bandwidth for support is constrained. Broadening an organization’s circle of supporters depends on its capacity to make a compelling case not just to individual donors, but also to the funders on which it depends.
Storytelling is, itself, an art. It’s the act of highlighting a simple occurrence, statement, or activity and using it to represent something with greater significance. The goal for nonprofit storytelling is to capture a transformative incident that represents the organization’s impact on an individual or issue, and then use that specific case to highlight the group’s broader impact. In so doing, the organization seeks to either expand its base of supporters for a specific campaign, raise funds to foster more financial support and thus the continuation of said efforts, or to demonstrate to funders that the money provided has achieved the desired impact. In this case, while the individual story is noteworthy, it’s more meaningful and significant as a display of what can be achieved with sufficient resources, whether human or financial.
By offering supporting data, organizations demonstrate their capacity to replicate an individual story on a broader level with others in their target audience, whatever it may be. In essence, the data represent the pool of achievability through the specific activity or event that took place: how many more lives the group can touch, polar bears it can save, or dollars in storm damage it can help prevent. Without offering additional numbers or metrics, funders and supporters remind themselves of the old adage for investing: “Past performance is no indication of future success.” Without describing a model for how an outcome was achieved, how will people know that it can be done again?
Stories do have limits. In this day and age, there is no shortage of events pulling on people’s heartstrings. There is a reason why reporters share the stories of individuals affected by a particular disaster. They’ll speak to one family whose house was destroyed by a hurricane or tornado, and then present panoramic footage of the disaster and devastation that occurred around them. In so doing, they demonstrate the scope of the need.
Clearly, many organizations struggle to find the time or resources to share their stories. Many also lack tools for collecting data or measuring their impact. Unfortunately, as competition for scarce resources increases, the choice of whether or not to tell a story and collect basic organizational data will no longer be optional. Personally, I applaud funders who are imposing stricter evaluation requirements. I want organizations to be more accountable for the work they do or funds they receive. As someone who has written hundreds of grants thus far in my career, I cannot count the number of times that I have been asked to create meaningless evaluation plans for organizations with no history or capacity to assess their work. Even in my efforts to make these plans as simple and achievable as possible, I am certain that in the majority of cases, no effort was made to follow through on what was proposed.
Of course, therein lies another problem: Those individuals tasked with telling stories are typically not those who deal with organizational or program data. For most organizations, where a divide exists between those who use data and those who avoid it, including data in storytelling is indeed a complicated endeavor. Recognizing this entrenched divide, I view storytelling as a unique opportunity for organizations to work through data aversion, bringing together staff with different roles in a manner that fosters increased understanding and collaboration.
NPQ and I would love to hear how you have bridged this divide between story and measurable outcomes—or, on the other hand, if you have completely left behind one to do the other.