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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.)

Storytelling 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 can help you do that. They are a critical vehicle for sharing knowledge within organizations. They can be used to transfer information about mission, culture, vision, and values in a way that mere statements do not. Often, they clearly demonstrate an organization's value proposition -- what, within an organization, concepts like "sustainability," "equity," and "opportunity" really mean. Stories also provide a meaningful context for the distribution of data and statistics. Audiences have a greater propensity to comprehend, remember, and reuse or repeat information when it is wrapped in a story, as opposed to recited without context.

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.

--Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Aspen Baker  |   September 11, 2009 at 01:56 PM

Thelar, this is so on point and very helpful. Once again, you're helping me expand my thinking about how to strengthen organizational culture and pursue our mission.

Posted by Anne Ellinger  |   September 14, 2009 at 01:45 PM

Thanks, Thaler. I'm a long-time believer in the power of stories. See the "inspiring stories" section of www.BolderGiving.org for stories from over 80 amazing givers.

Your clients and readers might also want their stories told by a Playback Theater troupe! Playback troupes across the US and around the world help nonprofits and communities tell their stories. I perform with the Boston-based troupe, www.TrueStoryTheater.org.

Thanks for all you do.
Anne Ellinger, co-director, Bolder Giving in Extraordinary Times

Posted by katrinah  |   September 15, 2009 at 02:54 AM

Hi Thaler, great points! I love producing video stories of social entrepreneurs: thanks for giving me a new question to add to the mix: "tell me about the time you felt most connected to the mission of our organization." This Q will evoke fascinating responses/stories, for sure. Thanks!

Posted by Thaler  |   September 15, 2009 at 12:29 PM

Anne, thank you so much for your comment. I have not yet seen a Playback Theater performance, but I am on the mailing list for NYC and hope to attend one, soon (I am also studying Improv). Thank you so much for introducing me to your wonderful site (and work). I am especially impressed by the quality, structure, and content of the stories you are sharing and the various ways in which they are made accessible.

Posted by Thaler  |   September 15, 2009 at 12:32 PM

Thank you, Aspen. It means a great deal to me that my work can support your important organization.

Posted by Archana  |   September 18, 2009 at 06:34 AM

Great post - there was an excellent book I picked up when I started grantwriting about the power of storytelling (can't remember the name), and the importance of stories has been food for thought since then.

We just did a post about storytelling and linked here at our blog - http://southasianphilanthropy.org, thinking about the power of collective/community storytelling in informing philanthropy.

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