We could all take a page from our kids: there’s nothing quite like a good story.
Here’s what nationally recognized public interest communications expert Andy Goodman bluntly told the audience of approximately 300 nonprofit staff members at the Nonprofit Resource Center Annual Conference today: We have great stories but we suck the life out of our stories. We are story-telling vampires.
Having gotten the attention of the audience, Goodman went on to dissect nonprofits’ program and mission statements. It wasn’t pretty. Burdened by jargon or mind-numbing numbers, they were dead on arrival.
If you’re not telling stories — consciously, deliberately — then you’ve got to start. And if you are telling stories, you need to do more, he told the group.
What makes a good story? They follow a classic pattern. Act one: We are introduced to the protagonist and learn something about their world. Something happens to throw the protagonist’s world out of balance and a story is in motion. Act two: The hero encounters an obstacle, something that makes you wonder, “What happens next?” And act three: The protagonist overcomes the barriers and the tension is resolved.
Where most nonprofits go wrong is in telling formulaic stories that skip the most important part, the barriers. We haven’t started to root for the protagonist before we are told how the nonprofit fixed everything. When we tell stories, too often they are bloodless. The detail of the barriers — first one, then another — is what rivets our attention.
An organization is best understood as the sum of its stories of the things it has done, and will do, Goodman told the group. Therefore, organizations should identify its core stories and makes sure everyone — staff, volunteers and board — know them by heart.
Goodman said organizations should have a solid repertoire of six kinds of stories:
- The “nature of our challenge” story. Example: A literacy organization could have a story about how parents couldn’t help their children with their homework.
- Creation stories. Example: Everyone at Sacramento Loaves and Fishes knows the story of how Chris and Dan Delaney founded the organization out of the back of their car when they started delivering sack lunches to homeless people camped near Highway 160.
- Success stories. Example: Women’s Empowerment provided Regina with training and job-seeking assistance to get back on her feet after becoming homeless during the period she cared for her terminally-ill mother.
- Performance stories. Example: Rather than just talking about its evidence-based practices and strength-based approach, River Oak Center for Children explains how it achieves clinical results by sharing stories like this one about Darren.
- “Striving to improve” stories. You won’t usually find these on websites, but these are the stories of mistakes and problems, and how organizations recovered from them, learned and got better at what they do.
- Stories of the future. This one isn’t in story form yet, but it could be. Imagine the Sacramento Tree Foundation talking about how life in Sacramento would look for a child born 10 years from today as she walks to her first day of elementary school on a hot fall day under a shaded canopy of trees. Today they say they’re leading to plant 5 million trees by 2025.
Thanks, Nonprofit Resource Center for a worthwhile day (and great value)!
(And for the many curious friends and readers who have asked, all is well with me but I have been sucked into working to defeat Measure D, the incorporation proposal, for Arden Arcade here in Sacramento. If you want to know more about that, ask to receive the e-newsletter: firstname.lastname@example.org.)