For those of us immersed in the work of nonprofits, our “why” is often very personal yet something we struggle to effectively communicate in a way that moves others to join us in the work—or to at least not stand in our way! It’s easy to get frustrated when what is so clear to us seems to be misunderstood or deprioritized by others. Why is it so hard?
Change-making is hard work
In mission-driven work, so much of our purpose is centered around change. Directly or indirectly, the personal and systemic transformations nonprofits help to make possible are ultimately driven by influencing attitudes, decision-making, and behavior. When we consider the work in this framing—of influencing (and changing!) perceptions, policies, and practices—it’s easier to understand why it can feel like an uphill battle. Sharing stories of impact can help.
Capture hearts + minds with stories
Through various studies involving brain scans of people hearing stories, or reading them, it’s been revealed that when we hear, for example, a metaphor involving texture, the part of our brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch becomes active. The same is true for smells and motion—which can stimulate regions of our brains distinct from the language processing areas. In other words, our brains don’t distinguish between reading or hearing about an experience and encountering it in real life.
In each case, the same neurological regions—or areas of—our brain are stimulated. We’re not just understanding the words, we’re tasting that smooth milk chocolate, we feel the panic (or joy?) of sliding down the muddy washed-out trail, we smell the acrid smoke billowing from the house fire down the street. In fact, when you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.
In this way, storytelling can build empathy. When you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself. When we experience empathy, our brains release oxytocin, the “bonding chemical” which leads to feelings of connection and trust. When we feel connected to and trusting of others, we are more open to their invitations to listen, learn, and act.
Systems for story finding
So how do we find the stories that bring a nonprofit’s mission (+ impact) to life? A previous post shared prompts for harvesting stories from nonprofit team members. But we also need to put systems in place to invite stories of impact from the people and communities we partner with and serve.
No single approach will work for all nonprofits, so consider the list below a menu of ideas to riff off of and help you craft systems uniquely suited to your organization. In fact, depending on the nature of your activities, some ideas may be inappropriate for ethical reasons or unallowable for privacy or regulatory reasons. You may also have to do some follow-up work on the raw stories and responses you receive before they can be shared with others.
- Build-in prompts for personal reflection over time: before participants begin a program or service, consider creating an opportunity for them to reflect on and capture their current state or experience. Why are they participating? What do they hope to learn, change, or achieve? This could be accomplished through a worksheet, journal, web form, video diary, one-to-one onboarding interviews, or small group conversation. Then be sure to include a chance for participants to revisit these prompts at the end (and/or mid-point) of their participation and reflect on what has changed.
- Conduct one-to-one informal interviews: develop a short list of questions (it could be as few as two to three!) to tease out any personal or professional transformations, changes, or wins that people involved with your organization have experienced. While program participants and service recipients might seem like the obvious folks to interview, consider including volunteers, key partners, board members, and others involved in the work. You might have different questions for each group and, ideally, want to identify someone to lead the interview who is not directly involved in the program, service, or activity being discussed to encourage a candid conversation.
- Create automated email sequences: craft a series of emails to be sent to participants at pre-determined periods of time after an event or activity (e.g., a day, week, month, year, etc.) to encourage reflection and sharing over time. Most CRM/database software and email marketing platforms offer the ability to create and automate these messages. The number and timing of emails will depend on the nature of the experience and how much time it may take participants to put a new habit, action, or approach into practice. Consider offering different methods for folks to respond and share: a voice recording, written response, video, or something else entirely like artistic expression. Depending on your audience, you might also offer the option for someone to call the participant by phone or web conference to capture and/or record their story.
- Small group sharing: in some circumstances, it may be possible and appropriate to bring program participants or alumni together—either in person, or virtually. Creating space for people with shared values and experiences to connect can be a powerful way to help draw out individual stories of transformation. When we hear someone share a story that resonates with us, we’re often compelled to share our own story in return. The opportunity for small group sharing can be included as a part of a larger event, or as a one-time or periodic gathering devoted to the singular purpose of connection and storytelling. If meeting in person, consider how you can secure or create a comfortable space that makes people linger. Sharing a hosted meal or even something as simple as a coffee hour, cookie exchange, or potluck can also encourage connection.
- Mail postcard invitations: these days, it’s easy for email messages to get buried, lost, or ignored. Dropping a simple postcard in the mail can be an effective way to reach your audience. Depending on the type of story you’re inviting the recipient to share, you may be able to include detailed instructions, or direct them to webpage by including a web link or QR code where they can learn more. If you have the budget to produce an oversized postcard or collateral piece (5 x 7″ or larger), you might even include someone else’s story and then invite the recipient to share theirs. And of course, if you can leave a little space for someone to include a handwritten note (even just a simple greeting to personalize the request), that’s sure to capture the recipient’s attention.
- Take a crowdsourcing approach: in some cases it may make sense to cast a wider net through a more public outreach strategy. Featuring stories you’ve already captured through local news media (print or broadcast), social media, and other outlets can be a way to reach and re-connect with folks whom your organization has lost touch with and invite them to submit their stories. When using this approach, you can also consider whether to incentivize participation through gamification or a contest of some kind.
Many of these ideas will be familiar to you and some may even be things you’re already doing, but perhaps for a different purpose than finding and collecting stories. That said, don’t try to do too many things at once! Pick two or three ideas that are best suited to your cause and adapt them to work with whatever tools and people power you already have in place. Over time, you can continue to expand and streamline your story finding systems.
Before sharing stories
Once you’ve collected stories of impact, be sure to ask yourself these questions:
- Do we have permission to share these stories?
- Are we including any personal details that are unnecessary or inappropriate?
- Is the story framed (or told) in a respectful way that maintains the dignity of the storyteller?
- Collectively, do the stories we’ve compiled represent the full diversity of experiences of our audience or community? Have we left anyone out?
- Does telling these stories help to convey the impact of our work and include an invitation to join us or take supportive action of some kind?
It’s also helpful to consider these questions when developing your story finding systems.
If you have additional thoughts or tips to share, or if you found this post helpful, please be sure to comment below!
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