Story telling can be a great way to help folks understand the importance of your nonprofit’s mission and the impact of the work you do. Stories can be included in volunteer recruitment, donor appeals, grant proposals, and policy-maker briefings. While the value of stories may be clear, it’s common to feel stuck trying to figure out what stories to share. This exercise can help!
Why stories matter
- We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. We do this because it’s fundamentally how our brains work.
- When you listen to (or read) 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 we experience empathy, our brains release oxytocin, the “bonding chemical” which leads to feelings of connection and trust.
Ways stories might be used
So much of our work in nonprofits involves moving other people to action of some kind, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Fostering relationships and connection through compelling stories can help to:
- inform policy
- build trust
- motivate others to join the work
- establish relevance
- influence behavior
Schedule time for Story Harvesting
Ideally, you’ll include several members of your team in the process—this could include paid staff, board members, volunteers, and anyone else intimately familiar with your organization and the work it does in your community.
You could schedule this as a stand-alone activity, or include it as a part of a staff meeting, annual team or board retreat, training day, or other gathering (convened in-person or virtually).
Determine your process
Based on the amount of time you’re able to dedicate to this process, be sure to decide how you’d like to work through the prompts as a group, and how you’ll capture the stories shared by participants.
In advance of the gathering, it can be helpful to:
- recruit someone to help explain the purpose of the gathering, share the prompts, and lead the discussion—ideally this will be someone who can be dedicated to this task as a facilitator and not someone who will also contribute stories
- determine who will help to take notes + how (e.g., on chart paper for the group to see, via computer and projected on a screen, using a visual facilitator, etc.)
- decide whether the discussion will take place as one large group or split into smaller groups—if you anticipate having more than six participants, consider using smaller groups and ensuring some time for each group to share back to the larger group
Story Harvesting prompts
As a team or in small groups (depending on the number of participants), you’re encouraged to spend approximately 15-minutes on each of the three prompts listed below. If at any point you feel stuck, feel free to skip a prompt and/or spend more time exploring one or two prompts in a deeper way.
- ORIGIN STORIES: why we exist; how we came to be. How did this organization (or program, service, etc.) come into existence? Who started it? Why? What challenges had to be overcome?
- COMMUNITY IMPACT: how we’ve made a difference. This can include stories of learning (including failure), success, or change/transformation. How have you, your peers, the organization, a specific program, any partners/collaborators, participants, or the community changed?
- ENVISIONED FUTURE: why change is needed and how we’ll get there. Often, these stories explore the ideas, values, or world view that drives your work.
If working in small groups, then be sure to leave a bit of time after the ~45-minutes (or more) of small group discussion for each group to share one or two of the stories they captured with the larger group.
Customize as needed
Tweak the instructions above to meet your needs. For example, if you: have a big group; have participants with varying levels of knowledge or experience with your organization; or are limited in the amount of time you can spend together, then you could modify the activity in any of the following ways:
- have different groups focus on a specific prompt (vs. each group exploring all prompts)
- have different groups consider each prompt from the perspective of a specific program, service, or initiative rather than the organization as a whole
- decrease or increase the amount of time spent reflecting on each prompt
- limit the amount of time for sharing back with the large group and distribute the collected stories with all participants after the gathering
Tell your stories! Each story can be used in different (+ multiple!) ways. In some cases you may tell the whole story, and in other situations you might use a particularly compelling anecdote or quote from a longer story.
Examples of places + opportunities to share your stories:
- your website
- social media
- donor appeals
- volunteer or employee recruitment
- proposals + progress reports to funders
- annual reports
- brochures, flyers, and other collateral (digital + print)
- team onboarding – inclusive of board, staff, and volunteers
- legislative briefings
- news media interviews
- sponsorship solicitations
ANYTIME you want to help other people understand your mission, why it matters or how they can support your work or get involved, you should be sharing your stories. Stories help to make your mission relevant and relatable, and make your calls to action more compelling.
Final thoughts + tips
- When it comes time to share your stories, picking a story can be difficult. If you start by thinking about who needs to hear your stories, you can be confident you’ve selected a story worth telling for that particular audience
- As you start to think about why the audience you’ve selected needs to hear this story, you may get stuck. That’s likely a sign to reconsider your audience, or pick a different story to tell them
- If you have success with this method, be sure to schedule time in the future to do it again. The frequency will depend on the size and activity level of your nonprofit.
- For small nonprofits, consider revisiting this process annually.
- For larger teams with multiple programs or services, you might consider conducting this on a semi-annual or quarterly basis and focusing on a different program or mission focus each time.
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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