By Elaine Gast Fawcett, PhilanthroComm
Storytelling is a powerful tool for change. The right stories—shared well—have unlimited potential to raise awareness and resources, and inspire action. How many of your grantee partners are sharing their stories in a strategic way? And how can you, as a funder, support your partners in sharing stories that matter?
Since before 2000, the Meyer Foundation in Washington, DC, has been interested in helping grantees raise money from individual donors. “Donors want to emotionally connect to an organization’s work, and nonprofits need storytelling to make that happen.”
“Program officers typically look at a nonprofit’s communications,” says Rick Moyers, Meyer Foundation vice president of programs and communications, “and then visit the organization and see the work they are actually doing. There’s often a moment when we realize their written materials don’t convey the power of the work they do. They are strapped for resources, and communications is often the lowest priority.”
Aside from low resources, there are other reasons why nonprofits shy away from storytelling. “Many are humble; they don’t want to self-promote,” says Moyers. “There could also be issues of confidentiality—keeping them from sharing stories of actual people. And no one wants to be seen as trading in or capitalizing on human suffering, or conveying their clients as victims.”
To better understand these challenges, and what could be done about them, in 2014 the Meyer Foundation, partnering with Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, surveyed 81 nonprofits in the Washington, DC, region.
Based on what they learned, the foundation and Georgetown offered a series of workshops to train nonprofit leaders how to tell stories with more impact. They also published a toolkit that nonprofits anywhere can access called Stories Worth Telling: A Guide to Strategic and Sustainable Nonprofit Storytelling. This toolkit teaches nonprofits about how to plan, develop, distribute, and evaluate compelling stories.
In addition to the toolkit, the Meyer Foundation offers resources and tutorials on its website, along with a story bank—a central place where visitors can read and watch stories from its grantees.
The Importance of a Storytelling Culture
“A storytelling culture is when gathering and telling stories is imbedded in the work of the organization,” says Moyers. “Everyone understands it, and everyone plays a role in doing it. It’s not a one-time thing. The organization continually grows its capacity for storytelling.”
For nonprofits to do this well, he says, “board and volunteers need to understand what types of stories the organization needs, and the organization needs to invest in photography or video to tell stories. Everyone in the organization must buy into the value in it,” says Moyers.
One word of advice for funders: Supporting storytelling is a long-term process. Good stories take talent, time, and money.
“Funders have notoriously short attention spans. We realized we can’t simply put out a publication, do some workshops, and move onto the next thing,” says Moyers. “If funders are serious about building communications capacity in their grantees—storytelling being a piece of that—we have to plan on 5 to 10 years of sustained attention.”
Moyers has been working in communications for 30 years, and he’s never seen a time when there were so many low-cost tools available for organizations and different channels to tell stories.
“It’s a crowded and noisy world where people are bombarded with content, and yet the barriers to entry for storytelling are lower than they have ever been. It used to cost $10K–$20K at a minimum to make a video, and it’s not that way anymore.”
“It’s an exciting time to tell stories, and it doesn’t cost a lot,” he says. “Powerful stories can motivate people, galvanize public officials, and inspire donors. They need to be told.”
Storytelling Alone Is Not Sufficient
Storytelling in itself is interesting and necessary, says Sean Gibbons of The Communications Network, but it’s not sufficient.
“Equipping a nonprofit to craft a story is not enough; you have to put money into promoting and distributing it as well. Most nonprofits don’t have the resources or talent to do these things with excellence, yet foundations with their well of relationships and finances can and should see this as a core area in which they can help.”
To start, foundations can think about developing their voice—and using it as an asset alongside the dollars they give away, says Gibbons. “In foundations as well as nonprofits, everyone needs to see communications as one of their core responsibilities.”
Foundations also can leverage networks, resources, and know-how, he says. “If you’re in a position to be a funder, you have some astounding relationships. Look to those relationships and how you can leverage them to lift up your grantees. Stories have to find ways to travel, and they have to be carried by others.”
7 Ways to Support Storytelling
Storytelling can be part of any funder’s strategy. Here are some ideas to get started.
- Get strategic about storytelling. Develop your own story. What do you and your grantee partners want to support or change, and, more important, why? Who do you need to engage? How will you reach them? How will you know it worked?
- Ask current grantee partners about storytelling. Are they sharing stories, and if so, what’s working and not working well? If you don’t ask them about storytelling, they may never raise the issue.
- Take stock of communication assets and gaps. Look at grantee websites and social media accounts. Do they offer a way to get to the organization through stories, or are they dry accounts of problems and solutions? Offer small steps they can take to improve their communications incrementally, such as less jargon, easier navigation, use of infographics, and photography.
- Fund communications capacity building. Most people don’t know good stories from bad stories, or even where to start. Help nonprofits see the value and ROI to good communications and storytelling, and how they can develop a storytelling culture. Hire an expert to teach nonprofits about the basics of narrative storytelling—how to find, tell, and share stories smartly. This type of capacity building can be built into your current grants.
- Experiment with small grants to storytelling, media, or film projects, or join in a funder collaborative that supports storytelling. This is a way to dip your toe into funding storytelling to inform your work going forward. (Learn more about this at TheFledglingFund.org.)
- Fund a platform for partners to share their stories. You can empower grantees and their partners by building an online forum or story bank where they can share stories and best practices, ask questions, learn from one another, and move their collective cause forward.
- Use your voice to lift up your grantees. Consider what you can do, beyond funding, to spread the word about your grantee partners’ work. Call on your contacts and relationships, use your sphere of influence, speak and share stories in person and online, and convene others around the cause.
Elaine Gast Fawcett and her team at PhilanthroComm strengthen the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors by sharing the stories that connect us.