• Rachel Blake

Do You Know Your Nonprofit's Story?

Elementary school children learn to focus on who, what, when, where, why, and how as key elements of a story. Researchers and business writers have been telling us adults for many years that humans are wired for story. Nonprofits responded by jumping to incorporate storytelling into fundraising and calls-to-action.

There is another place where storytelling matters for nonprofits. An area that is vital to how the organization functions, but has gotten relatively less attention: the nonprofit's story.

I'm talking about the story that your stakeholders and staff have for the organization. The story that may or may not be said out loud, but lives in every person's mind who is connected with your organization. Your nonprofit's story connects to each person's story about themselves and their lives. And, it matters. A lot.

The story exists, whether you know it or not

Think about how we talk about "going on a diet." We imply that we don't already have a diet. We do. It may not be thought through. It may be disorganized. It may be moving you in the wrong direction. If you are human and eating, you have a diet. "Going on a diet" is really changing your diet. It is a shift from one kind of diet to another. And, dieticians often advise people to start with a food journal so you can see your current diet before you decide on any changes to it.

Your nonprofit's story is exactly the same. You have one, whether it is intentional or organized or moving you in the right direction. If you haven't worked to intentionally create one, then you better figure out what it is. And, the truth will be that there will be many conflicting stories.

People who are living in stories that aren't clear will fill in the blanks. They have to. We are all constantly trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. Without a central story for an organization, inevitably, the stories will start to diverge.

Partial Information Results in Branching Stories

In the list of who, what, when, where, why, and how, most nonprofits will at least have the where and the when. Our office is at X address and is open during Y hours. Or we are all remote, but we can be reached in these ways during these hours.

But, if you think about a story and all you know is the where and when, that's not a lot. Say you are told that a story is set in the 1980s in Iowa. You've when and where, but it could go in so many different directions.

You will also often have at least a vague why that key stakeholders understand. To eliminate poverty, stop recidivism, etc. So, let's add a vague why like "change in rural America." Now you have a fuzzy picture. You can even talk to other people who see the same fuzzy picture and think you have some agreement on the story.

But, if you dig deeper you might learn that some people think the story is Bridges of Madison County while others assume it must be Field of Dreams while still others guess it must be a documentary about the farm crisis or a book about cultures colliding in a small town. Others might not have any reference point for stories in Iowa at all and be completely lost.

Incomplete & Competing Stories

Without all elements you do not have a story. If you don't have a basic story that your staff and board all know and agree upon, you will have people filling in the blanks. They will fulfill their roles at the organization assuming a story that is completely different than their colleague's story or than a board member's story.

When the stories don't line up you get confusion, conflict, and disengagement. This can manifest in ruptured staff relationships and gaps between the board and the staff. It is impossible to make good, strategic decisions (either as a board or a staff) because the people involved sense (if not outright know) that people are not on the same page on the basics. Constructive strategic discussions cannot happen if people don't even have a shared understanding of the organization's story.

Checking Your Nonprofit's Story

Can you answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how for your organization in enough detail that key stakeholders would understand how they fit into the story?

Once you have your answer, try to figure out where your story overlaps with other peoples’ stories. Think about whether that colleague who drives you crazy could be playing their part in a completely different story? What about the board member who is always asking you questions you don't understand or don't think are important? Where does their story for the organization diverge from yours?

Of course, walking up to someone and saying, "Hey, what do you think our org's story is?" is probably not going to get you very far. But you could start to get some of the answers you need with questions in important conversations that include key pieces of your story.

  • Are we doing [some thing] because we think it helps us [why, what, how]?

  • Is the goal here [what or why]?

  • [Who] is doing this [how]?

Listen carefully to how people answer. These aren't totally direct questions, so they won't have totally direct answers. You might have to ask a few times in a few settings to get a better sense of where someone is coming from. And, you might think you have overlap, but diverge after you dig in just a little bit into details. That's OK. Knowing is definitely half the battle.

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