Collecting stories is consistently ranked as the #1 storytelling challenge that fundraisers face in the surveys and research that I conduct. This fact was clear in the 2015 research project I did with Network For Good, called The State of Storytelling. Perhaps you can relate to this challenge, too.
In my own experience, there have been times when collaboration felt more like pulling teeth. But that’s not really collaboration. That’s friction. What some of those experiences taught me is that rather than constantly trying to solve the problem in front of us, we have to start from the foundation up. By that I mean organizations can benefit from doing teamwork and development around storytelling, plus that will make the task of collecting stories easier.
3 Common Barries to Collecting Stories
As fundraisers, if we are to tell great stories we need to have access to stories. This frequently means collaborating with staff members and volunteers to identify potential stories for fundraising. This should be an easy task (in theory), but in reality, there are number of barriers that come up such as:
Program staff members don’t have time for storytelling
The common phrase that you may hear is, “That’s not my job.” Boom! That’s a way to end a conversation. But I actually see this as an opportunity for more conversation. It’s everyone’s job to help advance the mission of the organization and although we may all have specific roles that we carry out, sometimes we must collaborate to move ahead. Storytelling and fundraising are often one of those times.
Realistically, everyone is busy so it is important to find ways to make storytelling as easy as possible. For instance, rather than scheduling a separate meeting to talk about storytelling, take advantage of times when people are already together. Perhaps a team meeting, an all-staff meeting, or even in the lunch room.
A desire to protect clients and respect their privacy
Without a doubt, it is important to tell stories ethically, and with dignity and respect. The unfortunate misconception is that all fundraising stories are slick attempts to market the cause and get donations by “using” someone’s story for the organization’s gain. I always think of the classic international development TV ads with the sick and starving children in the background. PS if you’ve never seen the Saturday Night Live parody of the commercial, go watch it now!
One of the things that I’ve learned about storytelling both from telling my own stories and from helping others tell their stories is that storytelling can be a therapeutic and cathartic experience. What’s important to note though is that the agency should lie in the hands of the storyteller and it should always be their decision to tell the story. But what often happens is that we assume people will not want to share their stories, so we never ask.
Something to consider here – have you actually asked clients if they want to share their story? If not, you need to. Don’t answer on their behalf.
Not knowing which stories to tell
One of the biggest reasons staff and volunteers will not share stories is because they simply don’t know what stories to share. They may also not know how to recognize a story. I know that might sound like a far stretch, but when you are doing the work day in and day out, sometimes the things that will seem really special to other people will not seem like a big deal to you. In other words, you become a bit desensitized to the stories.
If this has happened at your organization, one thing you can do is give people gentle reminders. Remind them that their work is worth sharing and that you are interested in hearing about it.
The Bottomline – Get Everyone on the Same Page
The important thing to realize is that there is a common thread, and therefore solution, to these barriers – getting everyone on the same page.
The problem with the current approach that many communications and fundraising professionals take to storytelling is that it is very top down. “This is what’s happening, and here’s how you’re going to help.” And it’s where we run into problems when trying to get buy-in for storytelling.
Rather what we need to do is more foundational work as a team. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
Gather the key players for a conversation about storytelling. Your goal during this conversation is to set some storytelling guidelines. This might include guidelines for confidentiality and other ethical issues. It could also include discussing a process for storytelling at your organization, including who is to participate in the process. The point is to start a dialogue about storytelling. It’s how you go from storming to norming as a team.
Let’s talk about this in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your experiences when collaborating with colleagues to tell stories. What’s work and what hasn’t worked?