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Don't Be Afraid to Share Your Stories

November 18, 2009

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Her previous posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.)

Megaphone Too many foundations are confounded by storytelling.

Paralyzed by the need to tell the one perfect story that embodies their brand, acknowledges all their stakeholders, AND helps to advance their goals, foundations often refrain from telling any stories at all. As a result, potentially transformative knowledge fails to reach hungry audiences and voices vital to innovation within the philanthropic sector go unheard.

Or foundations will only tell stories about their grantees, failing to realize that their own stories -- about leadership, challenges, and successes -- often resonate powerfully with key audiences.

Today, we know that the audiences with whom foundations should and most often do communicate -- current and potential grantees, donors, policy makers -- are eager to hear about the work of and people within foundations. Indeed, the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative has reported that 88 percent of "informed Americans" want foundations to share the lessons they have learned.

So imagine the benefits, not to mention goodwill, that would accrue if foundation staff were encouraged to share their stories with board members, grantees, policy makers, and their peers in other organizations. Imagine what might happen if foundation staff shared authentic stories about what they were seeing in their areas of expertise, what was important to them, and what was impacting their work.

The unique value of any foundation lies in the knowledge it brings to the important work of finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems and in its ability to learn from, share, and apply that knowledge to other problems. Such expertise is best shared by the people most responsible for developing and nurturing it. And that's why foundation staff -- leadership and program officers, in particular -- should be encouraged to share stories that effectively articulate and illustrate the foundation's core values.

Remember: The point is not to fuss over stories until they have a perfect narrative arc or seamlessly fit the thematic constraints of the annual report. The goal, instead, should be to tap the passion, knowledge, and expertise of staff members; to demonstrate your foundation's unique value; and to share your stories as widely and as often as possible with audiences eager to listen to, engage with, and pass them on.

-- Thaler Pekar

Comments

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Good points, Thaler. Only comment I'd add is that with so many ways available today for foundations to tell stories -- especially via social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc.) -- not taking advantage of these opportunities is a real loss. And not just to foundations, but people who need to hear about their vital work.

Bruce, as someone with long experience in the foundation communications business, let me ask you a question: What are a couple of the reasons foundations most commonly give for NOT sharing their stories more widely or proactively? And has the emergence and growing popularity of social media tools undermined those arguments or reinforced them (I guess I'm thinking of cost and ROI calculation arguments)?

Good question, Mitch. I'm not saying foundations aren't telling their stories. Rather, to not take advantage of all the NEW ways to tell stories is a missed opportunity. Also, and even as Thaler points out, we have to draw distinctions between telling stories about foundation grantees vs. foundations themselves. The latter is where I think the opportunity really exists -- inviting people inside foundations so they can better understand the work they do (beyond the numbers and sizes of grants). As recently as yesterday, Philanthropy Awareness Initiative put out a new report that says engaged Americans are eager to know more about foundations, and particularly how they can help us through our current challenging times. It's worth reading and for foundations, in particular, to pay attention to the call for communications action.

Thank you, Bruce! You summarize my point, that foundations need to be telling their own story, since their stakeholders want to hear it. There’s another important reason, which is that foundation staff are likely to be empathetic protagonists to their stakeholders. Telling a heart-wrenching story about a grantee and evoking a charitable, sympathetic response may bring in donations and increase foundation morale, but it does little if nothing toward creating sustainable support from policymakers. Nor does it help future grantees or colleagues better understand the foundation. If organizations want to be heard and understood they have to talk about themselves.

Bruce, Mitch and Thaler, lots of good points here. The reason most foundations don't tell our own story more frequently is because we truly don't see ourselves as the hero of the adventure. Traditionally, we have stood to the side of the stage, and left the spotlight for the real heroes - the people on the frontlines. However, that has been changing over the past few years. It took awhile, but we have come to the understanding that our visibility can help move the needle on the issues we care about so deeply, and that, ultimately, is what we are all about. The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative report, as Bruce points out, shows that we still have much to learn in how to do this well. I agree that one answer lies in social media tools, which offer a wonderful opportunity to open ourselves and our processes up to the world in new ways. We should all be exploring those and other story-telling possibilities. Thanks to all for a great discussion.

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