What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Spreading the Word: How to Collect Your Organization's Stories

Want to motivate donors to give to your cause? Studies have shown that telling a story is the single most effective way to motivate donations—more than statistics, and even more than statistics and stories combined.

So: if you want to expand awareness of your organization, start collecting stories from everyone who comes in contact with you. Not only the beneficiaries of your work, but the employees, volunteers, and donors who make your work possible. This applies to both private and public sector organizations—because all of us need to motivate our target audiences to commit themselves to working with us.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking about the power of narrative to 150 people from non-profit food banks and soup kitchens. They were attending the annual Harvest of Knowledge Agency Conference hosted by the Second Harvest Food Bank. Their challenge, as assigned by Second Harvest's CEO, Kathy Jackson, is to collect stories from their clientele and share them with the Second Harvest Food Bank, so that the Food Bank will be better able to gather more donations.

I encouraged the group to broaden their definition of those whose stories they should collect to include food recipients, volunteers, individual and organizational donors, and themselves. All of these people are characters in the story of how Second Harvest nourishes people, in body, mind, and heart.

In order to fulfill their assignment of gathering stories, every one of the agency workers I spoke to must expand their focus--because food banks and soup kitchens are nourishing more than just the bodies of their hungry clientele. They’re not just moving food from storehouse to kitchen table. When they listen to their clients’ stories, they also nurture their sense of self-worth, and their ability to create meaning from their experiences.

All the members of the Second Harvest community can tell stories that answer:

• Who am I?

• What has led me to this place in my life?

• How do I envision the journey unfolding from here?

• What tools do I bring with me?

• What outside help is available to me?

• How is my journey enriched by my traveling companions, the obstacles I've overcome, the character strengths I've employed?

The challenge is to create the time and the place where these stories can be exchanged. In the day-to-day hustle of business, checking items off of to-do lists and making sure that perishable groceries are delivered on time and to the right place, how do you create an opportunity to hear people's stories? It can't be done through a written questionnaire or an online survey. Stories thrive on face-to-face interaction, on intimacy, on the listening ear and the delighted glance.

What does that mean for organizations in general? It means that story collecting needs to be a full-time, all-hands-on-deck, organization-wide activity. Everyone needs to make time for sharing stories, because your stories are the seeds that help your organization grow.

I encourage my clients to make a physical space for storytelling: Create a comfortable area for sharing stories, a table with two chairs facing each other, a pot of something delicious to share, an inconspicuous recording system, and most importantly, an eager ear waiting to be delighted by a story.

Then, create new ways to share the stories you collect. A website is classic, a newsletter works well, even a “tale of the week” email that celebrates both a story and the person who collected it. Your stories preserve and pass on your organization’s culture and values—don’t let them slip away.

If you would like to learn more about using stories to increase awareness of your organization, please contact me at rh@rhalpernassociates.com.