How to build a storytelling culture in your organization

The nonprofit storytelling series continues this week with how to build a storytelling culture in your organization.

So far, I’ve shared the five key elements that make storytelling effective, and how to use brand architecture to lend context to your stories and connect better with your audiences.

Now, I want to cover some ways to help your team adopt a storytelling mindset. The following strategies and tips can help you grow a culture that facilitates storytelling and integrates it into your work.

Tips to Build a Storytelling Culture in Your Organization

“Document, Don’t Create” Stories

Kivi Leroux Miller does a great job of explaining how Gary Vaynerchuk’s key rule about storytelling applies for her fellow nonprofit marketers. In her post, she gives some easy, actionable prompts for framing day-to-day work in your organization.

I’ll take it a step further. You should use “Document, Don’t Create” as a reference point for your entire storytelling approach. If your organization is doing the work of your mission, and if the struggles and opportunities facing those you serve really exist, then your ecosystem is already rife with stories.

This mindset serves to emphasize two key elements of storytelling I mentioned previously: A plot and authenticity.

A built-in plot

Your mission statement sums up the change your organization seeks to make in the world. That change is the key to any story’s plot. As I have noted in my last post, your brand positioning and architecture all reinforce this.

To transform any point of news in your organization into a story through the lens of your mission, consider using playwright Kenn Adams’ story spine.

His 2013 blog post on Aerogramme Writers Studio describes it in full, and the storytellers at Pixar have built on this concept to illustrate how they structure their stories.

The main gist is this:

Once upon a time, there was a ___.

This is your protagonist: a client, a donor, a volunteer, etc. Hint: Your organization itself isn’t the protagonist.

Every day, the _____ 

This is the challenge they face.

until one day _______.  

This is where your organization and its mission should shine for its transformative power, but remember that it’s usually best to frame your donors, supporters, etc. as the heroes of the story. What has their support made possible?

This could be a mentor unlocking untapped potential in a student, or a donor stepping in to deliver a Thanksgiving meal.

Because of that, _______

This outcome is where the “hope” part of the five key elements of effective nonprofit storytelling shines through.

Now, _______.

In fairytales, this is the “happily ever after.”

Sure, that’s rarely the case in real life, but the happy ending, however it plays out, is the answer to “why should I care.” This is the context for why this matters. Maybe now this student is thriving in the classroom, or that family feels more connected to the community and has started finding ways to give back now that they’re back on their feet.

Adapted from the Story Spine model by Kenn Adams

Not every story you tell is going to capture a monumental transformation. Sometimes it’s more incremental, but it can still fit this format. (In any case, the “Once upon a time” belongs in your outline only, unless you’re writing a fairytale series.)

As you’re trying to find a way to include story in your update about a new program, or framing a volunteer spotlight article, think about how you can use this tool to maximize your plot, lend context and infuse it with hope. In doing so, you’ll be delivering so much more for readers to connect with.

Authenticity: Documenting True Stories

Communicators depend on program staff to gather stories, share leads and build relationships with people whom your programs affect. From my experience with nonprofits, I have found that programs staff bristle at any suggestion from fundraisers or communicators to stage something. 

There’s good reason for this. They work hard to build credibility and trust with people and don’t want to participate in anything that hints at exploitation. Much of the friction between programs staff and communicators comes from the implication that patients, clients, participants or recipients have to serve as poster children upon which the organization can build their own point of view.

Building an authentic storytelling culture means ceding your communicators’ roles as directors and shifting gears into documentarians or reporters.

When you see yourself and your team as documentarians rather than directors, you are better equipped to actively observe the work you’re doing, amplify the voices that matter and connect more authentically with everyone who touches your organization.

In doing so, you’ll build access to the stories playing out every day because of your organization.

That’s it for today. Stay tuned, though. Next, I’m going to continue the storytelling series with some logistics. I will highlight some tools and processes that can streamline the practice of gathering stories and telling them well.

Featured Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

About the Author Reanna

I'm a freelance writer, part-time farmer, full-time mom of two and sometimes blogger. I like craft beer, low-key DIY projects and reading advice columns.

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