So, What’s Your Story?

By Dr. Nancy Strichman

I have been teaching nonprofit strategic planning and evaluation workshops for many years now, and I can’t tell you how often I have wanted to skip over all of the formal tools and get straight to the core of things – What’s your story? That, in essence, is what matters. We want to understand your narrative arc, a clear sense of the journey that you are taking us on.

We already know that storytelling can be a key capacity building tool. Stories help nonprofit practitioners sharpen their organizational strategies. And by sharing personal and professional stories, they are teaching us what enthusiasm and deep commitment looks like for a lifetime of activism.

In recent years, my family and I have been especially focused on storytelling. We established the Rayah Fund in order to bring dozens of women leaders from Israeli nonprofit organizations to speak in communities across the United States. In tandem with that initiative, I began writing down their stories, as well as those of many other civil society actors.

Now that so many of us are limited to telling our stories on zoom and webinars, we are required more than ever to be engaging storytellers. Here are few take-aways that we can all consider, as a philanthropic community in both personal and organizational storytelling, especially for all of our partners, the social organizations who are busy trying to make things better in this messy world of ours.

  1. Tell the story of us, not just of you. Getting from the me to the we.’

Your audience will care about your stories if they somehow connect back to their own lives. We tend to be a bit selfish, and we usually want to know how your stories relate to us.

Keep in mind both the value of something personal and the appeal of something universal when you are sharing your nonprofit stories. Consider how your story illustrates a larger topic. And since everyone’s point of entry is different, a good story offers many ways for the audience to connect and to see the value of your work.

  1. Give us access. Take bold ideas and make them into the everyday.

We need to see the everyday in stories. You need to shrink down any story topic so it becomes manageable for us to absorb. Take the big ideas and make them digestible.

Organizations, like all of us as individual storytellers, have to translate their ambitious visions into the everyday. Often it is those moments – of authenticity, vulnerability and universal truths- that the audience can see themselves and the world around them. Find a way to translate your organizational trajectory by highlighting the small, subtle moments from the larger stories.

  1. Stay Focused on the Why.’ We want to hear a story, not an itinerary or a to do list.

There is a reason why everyone only listens politely to too many vacation anecdotes. We are much more interested if you first sift through things, only sharing with us meaningful insights.

So yes, just because it happened does not in of itself make it interesting. To connect with your story, we need to understand the ‘why.’ And with nonprofits, we want to understand the essence of your work, not just what you do. The lens has to be focused on the strategy. After all, your strategy is driven by what you are seeking to change.

  1. Talk with us, not at us.

When you are telling a story, you want to keep it conversational. This is not the time to go on a rant, to make a political speech, nor is it a formal theatrical performance. You also don’t want to be too heavy-handed with your message.

Invite the audience into your organizational experience as if you are in the ease of a conversation. You can keep in mind that no one wants to be lectured to, and they certainly don’t want to be told how to feel. It is worth considering both your tone and tenor as you seek to transport us in place and time to your story.

  1. Keep asking yourself, what is this story about? Share your point of view, one theme at a time.

You want to drive one single story forward with precision. Think in terms of a memoir versus an autobiography. Not everything you remember, nor every family memory gets to go in. Ask yourself, what is the underlying theme?

Same with nonprofits stories. It is not an exhaustive ‘everything you wanted to know’ about the organization. Decide on the perspective that you’re telling and share that particular aspect of the work. While doing so, you will want to make sure to have an underlying theme (a.k.a. strategy) in your organizational stories- something that holds the narrative together.

  1. Invite your audience in with context and try to be hospitable.

We are looking for your take on the world, but the challenge is that you know it too well. You live it every day. So you will have to consider how to transfer what is obvious to you to your audience. We have to feel a part of it to go along for the ride.

In telling your nonprofit story, consider how you can invite your audience in, and make sure we do not feel excluded. You can’t just show us data and expect us to interpret it on our own. We won’t connect to the statistics without context. If you want us to care, you have to work to create some kind of shared experience by giving us the needed background and setting.

  1. Getting from A to B or to C. Either way, show us how you have evolved.

Great story telling is always about some kind of transformation. We are fascinated by how people change. The story needs to be about a journey – some way that you have been transformed or enlightened.

Likewise we want to hear how events have shaped your organization, how you all have moved through particular experiences, how your nonprofit work reflects change of some kind. You create an arc for the story by starting in one place and landing in another. You will want to mark signposts, of what has changed and what are the desired changes in the future. We will then feel like we are going somewhere, immersed in the world you are leading us to.

  1. Stay Real, you know that we always root for the underdogs.

No one wants flawlessness in storytellers- in fact, we will reward you for being genuine and vulnerable. Often, we tend to smooth out our rough edges or edit out our indiscretions. But in storytelling, it is the quirks, the imperfections, that are celebrated.

For nonprofits, it gets more complicated. But I think it is safe to say that we really don’t expect organizations to be perfect. We want to see the learning, the transformation. It is also worth articulating a realistic assessment of what is possible to achieve, sharing the insights that inevitably come along the way. Balance ambition with a dose of realism, while throwing in reflection too.

  1. Show us high stakes, and we will be hooked.

Stakes are the reason your audience wants to hear the next sentence in your story. If the audience doesn’t know why they’re listening to the story, or what’s to come, it’s easy to stop listening.

Stakes are non-negotiable for social organizations. And it’s not only about making a story resonate with your audience. Knowing what is at stake signals where the story is headed. You want your audience asking questions like: What will happen next? How is the story going to turn out? Only then can we become invested in the outcome.

  1. Bring us your perspective. Keep asking who you are in the story.

Yes we want to see ourselves in your story and be able to relate. But we also want to see you. What’s your personality? Your perspective? We need for you to be a reliable narrator and to reveal your inner monologue.

This goes for your nonprofit story as well. How easily can you articulate your organizational DNA? How is it reflected in the stories you tell? What keeps everyone motivated? What keeps the momentum going? The essence of the work, the experience of it, should be conveyed through the stories that are told.

And to sum up? We want to keep in mind that as funders, stakeholders and champions of social organizations, we can all take part in making sure that stories are getting out there into the world. There is nothing like stories in convincing more individuals to sign up for your adventure, becoming partners in weathering all of the surprises and bumps that life will throw us along the way.

Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her family and is a longtime member of Jewish Funders Network.