Stories Are a Vital Source of Knowledge
September 11, 2009
(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive message development, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)
Imagine asking every one of your staff members: "Tell me about the time you felt most connected to the mission of our organization." Ask your program officers, your CFO, your facilities staff. Imagine the range of responses. Imagine the passion you will unleash, and the information you will glean.
Most of the stories you hear in response to that question will not be "diamonds," perfectly encapsulating the mission and brand of your organization. The stories and anecdotes you hear will be more like pebbles and sea glass -- small, colorful glimpses into the meaning of your organization and its work in the daily lives of the people it affects. They will teach you much about the depth and breadth of your organization's impact.
Yet most efforts to find and collect stories for mission-driven organizations myopically focus on using stories for marketing and fundraising purposes. The stories that are collected and sometimes publicized are usually about the direct impact of the organization, or about the unmet need the organization seeks to address. In most organizations, too few people understand that the value of stories extends far beyond marketing and fundraising.
There is much to be gained by creating a true culture of story sharing within our organizations, especially those that function as hubs of entrepreneurship and innovation, and especially at this uncertain moment. Now is the time, says Steven Denning, the leadership and knowledge management expert, to emphasize "connection over collection."
Stories are a valuable tool for transferring knowledge among new and experienced employees, within departments and across organizational silos, and between staff and board members. Stories help socialize new hires and assist employees in processing the meaning behind their work experiences. For example, technical assistance providers, when asked outright, may have a hard time articulating the direct impact of their work. But when asked to recall a time when their assistance had an impact on a client, they are likely to recount many examples.
Stories help to create connections and illustrate associations between projects and program areas. And, when strategically analyzed, they can help make sense of complex situations.
Nonprofit leaders and managers can both seek out and share crucial knowledge by regularly eliciting and sharing stories. Share your own stories and listen to the stories of others. Ask questions such as, "Tell me about a time when you have felt most engaged with your work?" Then, sit back and listen. After the story has been shared, ask others who are present, "Does that remind you of anything?" Stories beget stories, which beget even more stories. (Everyone possesses the natural ability to participate in story sharing.) Create the time and space for such exchanges to occur. Once you ignite the spark, many recollections will follow. Listen for the patterns among them and allow for connections to be made.
And please remember: Stories are more than a commodity -- i.e., something to be exchanged for something in return. They are, instead, a vital means for organizations to nurture understanding, make sense of complexity, and embrace change.