Show and Tell: 4 Principles of Effective Storytelling

by Lisa Eisen
Adapted from the author’s remarks during the 2011 Jewish Funders Network Plenary: The Power of Narrative to Drive Change

It all started on a blind date in 1961. He was an hour and a half late. She was getting ready to leave when he finally showed up. Less than a year later, they were married.

He was a risk taker by nature, she a caretaker, and this unique combination was the hallmark of their lives together. She supported his gamble on drilling wells. He was in awe of how much she gave to those around her – from the tiniest victims of abuse and neglect who she accompanied to court, to her children and grandchildren, to him in later years when he was diagnosed with an illness that would eventually cut his life short.

When they were blessed with abundance, they established a family foundation that they infused with the same family values that filled their home: a love for Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel; a passion for repairing the world and for helping their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They viewed themselves less as grantmakers and much more as change makers determined to help create more vibrant, relevant, value-driven communities.

Nearly 25 years later, their foundation has expanded into a global network of programs and organizations that has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And yet the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is still grounded in the same values Charlie and Lynn established with their initial investment.

Throughout, we have remained true to the Schustermans’ story and to the stories of those whose lives we have touched. These narratives have guided our work to inspire young people to connect with our community and been a vital tool in driving the significant change we seek to make in Jewish life.

From strengthening Jewish identity and young adult engagement to fostering a global Jewish service movement, inclusive communities and support for Israel through education and advocacy, we take these narratives and weave them together into a tapestry that reflects the message at the heart of our work: that in the search for meaning, for relevance, for spirituality, actively engaging in Jewish life is a path worth pursuing.

There are four underlying principles of storytelling – principles that we live and work by – that I believe can help us as funders be effective change agents, broadening and deepening the impact of our philanthropy.

Know YOUR story and tell it with authenticity

In order to be the change you want to see in this world, you have to know who you are, the values that ground you and what you are trying to achieve. And you have to be able to articulate that clearly, effectively and authentically.

Just as we connect people very personally to the Schustermans’ vision and story, so, too, can you allow people inside of your story, connect them to the human side of your work and create opportunities for them to empathize with your quest. Empathy motivates people to act in meaningful ways.

The maxim here is this: authentic stories stimulate genuine emotions that inspire lasting change.

Listen to the stories of others

As important as it is to tell your story, it is even more important to hear the stories of others.

Our Foundation’s work to shift the Jewish communal narrative is driven by the stories we hear from young people about their interests and needs. We are helping to build a global Jewish service movement because we heard from young people that making the world a better place is among their deepest held values.

We are involved in Israel education and advocacy because we heard from students who felt uninformed and unprepared to tell Israel’s story and to meet the challenges to Israel’s legitimacy they face on college campuses.

We are deeply involved in opening the community to gay, lesbian and transgender Jews because we heard from so many talented, committed Jewish professionals who felt they had to remain closeted to work in Jewish organizations.

And we created the ROI Community of Young Innovators because we heard from young people that they wanted ownership over their Jewish experiences. Their stories told us this: we know what we want and if given the right resources, we WILL make it happen. Today, ROI is a community of more than 500 young Jews who are supporting each other in their respective and collective efforts to build vibrant Jewish communities around the world.

As an illustration, I offer the story of David, a young Jew who attended Catholic school and had little connection to Jewish life until he became involved with Hillel in college. The more involved he became, the more he noticed that his Jewish friends were not following suit. The problem was not a lack of interest, he realized, but rather a lack of opportunity for young people to drive their own Jewish experiences.

In listening to the stories of his friends, David developed an idea for a program that he believed could be at least part of the solution. In turn, he needed to have his narrative heard by people who could help him get it off the ground. We listened to David, as did several other funders, and today there are 33 Moishe Houses in 13 countries around the world that are enabling tens of thousands of young Jews to create Jewish life in their own image.

The guiding principle here: find great people, listen to their stories, respond to their needs and help them realize their dreams. In so doing, they will help you realize your vision and philanthropic goals.

Listen to the story the data is telling you

Stories and anecdotes should support – not replace – the story told by hard data. You have to listen to feedback, evaluations, research and facts, and respond accordingly. You have to listen honestly, with humility, an open mind and a willingness to learn, to acknowledge mistakes and to correct or change course.
At our Foundation, we take a rigorous approach to evaluation that is multi-phased and multi-faceted. In other words, we are systematic in our approach to using data-driven stories to influence social change and achieve our strategic goals. While we are not afraid to “drill a dry well” – i.e., take a risk – we ensure that we do our due diligence before charging ahead and that we evaluate our efforts after the fact.

The key here: strike a balance between being opportunity-driven and research-focused. As Charlie used to say, we must not be afraid to push forward with 80 percent of the best available information rather than waiting for the full 100 percent and, perhaps, missing the opportunity altogether.

Armed with both the anecdotal and the empirical, you will have a more complete picture of where the needs lie in a world in which time, money and talent are limited resources.

Narrative is important – but it does not trump action!

Finally, and most importantly, we must remember this: messaging alone cannot achieve change. Narratives are a powerful tool – but they do not trump action.

We may be a people of the oral tradition but we are also the people who said boldly, N’aaseh u’nishma. First we shall do, then we shall listen. We are a people who put deeds above words. Messaging means nothing if it is not backed up by compelling experiences and real action. This is especially true for the young generation with whom we work – they are sophisticated, skeptical and suspicious of spin.

In our case, we cannot just tell young people to engage Jewishly. We actually have to provide real opportunities for them to experience, feel and understand for themselves the joys, benefits and enrichment of engaging Jewishly. We have to empower them with the tools to be creators of their own Jewish stories.
The reason our Foundation has been successful in making change is because we roll up our sleeves, get involved and back up everything we say with action and deeds. Both on our own and together with our grantee partners in the field, we provide experiences, training, resources and assistance to make things happen on the ground that can be transformative for young people.

I challenge you to do the same: to act, to help transport people from passivity to agency, to help them be creators of their own stories. If done right, these stories will propel people to forge relevant and resonant experiences for themselves and their peers – which is the ultimate success story for us.

So, there we have our four principles for using narratives to create the change we want to see in this world: 1) communicate and be true to your own story; 2) listen to the stories of those you seek to serve; 3) listen to the story the data is telling you; and 4) create compelling experiences that can be translated into effective stories that will propel even more people into action.

At our Foundation, we are deeply focused on shaping a new narrative about what it means to be Jewish – one of inspiration more than obligation. We are armed with many resources to help us – but perhaps the best of all is the individual who planted the seeds for this foundation 25 years ago and continues to nurture its growth with an unparalleled authenticity and infectious enthusiasm.

As Lynn recently told us while en route to yet another event with thousands of young people: “I’m going today to be with the future that I’m funding so they know that there’s not just a person who writes a check but that person cares about them and wants to be with them. I don’t want to tell them to be Jewish – I want to show them how wonderful and life-affirming it can be.”

Lisa Eisen is National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.