The Power of Narrative to Drive Change

[eJP note: The recent annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network presented a plenary,

The Power of Narrative to Drive Change: How do you leverage action? Grantmakers can use the techniques of narrative, communications, and story to change the way people think about issues, inspire and draw more people to the cause they champion, and change the ground. Whether it’s done by speaking through grantees or working directly to change the narrative around an issue, this panel of communications experts and foundation and nonprofit leaders explore the possibilities.

In a previous posting, Show and Tell: 4 Principles of Effective Storytelling, Lisa Eisen spoke of stories and how “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.”

Today, Lisa Lepson, Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group, continues the discussion.]

The Power of Personal Story: How funders and social entrepreneurs drive change through narrative
Excerpted from the panel “The Power of Narrative to Drive Change” at the 2011 JFN Conference
by Lisa Lepson

Our work at Joshua Venture Group (JVG) is a perfect example of how narrative can drive change. JVG invests in social entrepreneurs who are transforming the landscape of our Jewish communities. Social entrepreneurs are driven to create ventures that change the Jewish experience – almost always grounded in their personal experiences. For example, each time Sarah Lefton, Founder of G-dcast gives her “elevator pitch”, she begins by saying, “I spent 10 years in Hebrew School, and at the end of it, I somehow didn’t know one story from the Bible.” It is this experience – this personal narrative – that compels her to develop accessible and entertaining animated bible and holiday stories online – and that draws people in to support her work.

For social entrepreneurs to create organizations and to guide their ventures forward over the course of several years, it requires true determination, perseverance, and resilience. What fuels this process is often their OWN stories. Social entrepreneurship works because it is rooted in a personal and passionate story. And personal passion, powerfully packaged as story, is what drives change in the world.

One of JVG’s alumni, Rochelle Shoretz, founded Sharsheret to support women with breast cancer and their families. When one hears Rochelle tell her story of battling this disease not only once, but twice, and of founding this venture to help support others’ in her situation, it is compelling and inspirational because her courage and her strength are impressive and authentic. It also combines what Andy Goodman, who spoke on the previous day at JFN, described as two of the essential stories that each organization needs – the story of “how we started” and “the nature of the challenge.” One implicitly understands both the need and the potential impact of Sharsheret from listening to Rochelle’s story.

Andy Goodman also spoke of the need to have other stories, such as “emblematic successes”. For social entrepreneurs, this goes beyond their personal narrative – for these stories, they need to listen to those impacted by their work.

At Joshua Venture Group we are experimenting with tactics to support our fellows in articulating their personal and organizational narratives and using those narratives to create and extend their community impact. Examples of these tactics include:

Evaluation: JVG requires each Fellow to create and implement an evaluation plan, and we provide resources (funding and access to expert consultants) to accomplish this. When asked how funders could help them support them to tell their stories, one of our Fellows, Zelig Golden immediately spoke about the value of the evaluation plan in helping him to tell the story of Wilderness Torah, because with the implementation of their plan, they will gather data that demonstrates their impact on participants. We remind our fellows, as well, that evaluation doesn’t have to all be numbers; it is a great way to gather qualitative data, and discover those narratives of “emblematic successes”.

Resources: Another one of our Fellows, Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek shared with us that he is not interested in to a consultant around storytelling but in receiving resources and examples of great storytelling in order to build their own compelling narrative. Resources could include:

  • A Ted video about how leaders inspire
  • Funding (or pro bono connection) to create a video
  • Available research – like Jumpstart’s assessment of the field to help anchor their work within a greater context

Reflection: We share with our grantees what we, as a funder, find compelling. We encourage them to go deeper into aspects and stories that we think best demonstrate their importance. Feedback like this can be essential for grantees’ growth and ability to best articulate their value and contributions to the community.

Storysharing: The greatest challenge of finding those “emblematic success stories” lies in creating a storysharing culture. How does the impact of one participant in an alternative spring break trip trickle up from the retreat staff to the Jewish Farm School leadership to Joshua Venture Group, and then to our funders and supporters? We ask ourselves how can we partner to create a storysharing culture? How does an organization listen closely to stakeholders’ experiences, and then effectively communicate those experiences to external stakeholders? It takes practice. It takes discipline. It takes strategy.

An excellent example of a funder supporting a storysharing culture comes from the Slingshot Fund. Looking for a way to avoid too much paper for donors to read, Slingshot asked their 10 grantees to submit their mid-point report by video. Grantees were provided with a flip cam at the beginning of the grant period, and the videos submitted were used to tell the story of their impact. Not only were the donors impressed by the impact, but the videos proved to be meaningful vehicles for the organizations. The videos were circulated on Facebook, on their websites, and at events; they had a multitude of uses and audiences. You can learn more about this process here.

Social entrepreneurs start out with powerful personal experiences which motivate them and others to make change in our world. As funders, it our responsibility to support them and other grantees to effectively use and communicate these narratives, and to mine their impact for additional powerful stories. Together, we can weave the tales that change our world.

Lisa Lepson is Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group.