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?
working for a global nonprofit organization that has local program coordinators on the ground in places such as Uganda, Haiti DR etc. We look to them for stories from the field .. often times it is challenging for them as English is their second language also they are not too comfortable with story content.. any suggestions on helping them gather information so together we can help them write their stories.?. Thinking of something like a spread sheet or simple form so they can fill in needed info that would help them build a story? Any thoughts on that? Thank you!
Vanessa Chase says
Hi Colleen – I was talking to another fundraiser recently who is in a similar position working with staff in various countries. She told me that over the years, she has honed and developed a 2 page questionnaire for staff to use when collecting stories. It’s been trial and error for her, but she said that it’s now working really well.
If you wanted to use an online technology for these, I would recommend setting up an online form through Google Forms or Wufoo forms.
claire axelrad says
Great article Vanessa. I love the point about not assuming people won’t want to tell their story. It’s a corollary to not assuming folks will resent being asked for a gift. People are perfectly capable of saying “no” on their own. Always ask!
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Thank you so much, Claire! I’m glad that point about assumptions resonated with you. Whenever I talk to an organization who says they can’t tell stories about their clients, I always ask them if they have actually asked their clients if they would like to share their story. It’s amazing how many have never bothered to ask and as a result are struggle with storytelling.
Dennis Fischman says
Vanessa, I am so glad you made these points, especially “But what often happens is that we assume people will not want to share their stories, so we never ask.”
I recently spoke with a group of disability self-advocates. They are really tired of being used as poster children and pitied. It’s natural for the organizational leaders to be protective of their constituents. But when a person with a disability speaks for herself and says “This organization changed a law, or provided a service, and now I can do something I wanted to do but was excluded from before,” it feels empowering to the storyteller. Their story is a huge contribution that no one is better able to give than they are!
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Dennis – thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this. I really appreciate what you said about the disability self-advocates not wanting to be portrayed as poster children or pitied. It’s very important to make sure that the story is told in a way that is empowering to that person and is close (if not the same) as the way they themselves would tell that story. I think this is an interesting challenge that a lot of organizations are trying to reconcile.
The greatest challenge I have is helping my fellow volunteers/staff recognize and then tell a good story.
I haven’t had any problems with people seeing the worth of storytelling for fundraising or advancing the cause of the organization — most folks either don’t know how to discern a good story, or they don’t know how to tell it. I’d love to hear more specifically about how you help people discover and write their stories so we can get more grassroots storytelling happening.
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Hi Monika – I’m so glad you mentioned the challenge of helping colleagues recognize stories. I would encourage you to show them lots of examples of good stories that are similar to what you want people to share. You could also show them examples of stories that you would not tell.
Doug Lipman says
I think there’s a problem here that you haven’t yet addressed. I call it the “You have a tree but I just have an acorn” problem.
Untold stories almost never seem like stories at all, to the person who experienced them, any more than an acorn resembles an oak tree. But the acorn, of course, with soil, water, and sunlight, can grow to become an oak.
Our own untold experiences don’t seem like stories to us. They usually won’t seem like stories until we imagine them fully, tell them to others, notice what worked about them and what didn’t, and keep making changes until our listeners have a positive response. That’s the basic process of growing a story; that’s how stories get their trunks, roots, and leaves. They aren’t so much fabricated as grown; they aren’t so much products as relational processes where one human stimulates another to imagine and to feel.
Perhaps the staffers who struggle to contribute stories need listeners more than they need forms to fill out. A form doesn’t respond emotionally and so can’t help us know what’s in a particular memory that might give it the power to affect others. But a listener’s face can do that in an instant.
In short, stories are grown, not made. You, with you orientation to and understanding of stories, recognize stories in undeveloped experiences, but those who have lived them without telling them usually don’t.
I think the real problem that organizations face is “how do we create situations where staffers can talk about what happened to them or to their clients, etc., so they will have a chance to germinate their unexpressed experiences and therefore begin their growth into stories?”
That’s where your thoughts about including storytelling in ordinary activities seems spot on. If one staffer per week just has the task of beginning a weekly meeting with a short anecdote about something that went well for a client, for example, staffers will begin to recognize the power of each other’s experiences, and notice how their own experiences, which seemed too simple or vague to talk about before the meeting, now seem to have something in them that affects others. That’s the first ability to cultivate, so that staffers can begin to recognize stories in the lives around them.
We are empowering staff to be storytellers, and yet a challenge that I struggle with is channeling their storytelling efforts in ways that support our mission. My office is driving strategic communication in a working environment where everyone considers themselves communicators, and yet few understand that building (and sustaining) a brand is a process. Rather than allowing my colleagues and I to collect their stories, they are sharing them with clients and stakeholders directly (without involving us at all). I cannot help but feel as though we are missing truly meaningful storytelling opportunities as a result. How can we be more collaborative?
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Hi Jennifer – That’s great that you are focusing on empowering staff to be storytellers. I would love to know what you’ve done specifically to empower them.
What you said about brand building as a process is so true. It sounds like that challenge is that everyone is excited about being a communicator and storyteller, but they are not always telling their stories to the right people (you). I would encourage you to think about what your colleagues need in order to share stories with you. Do they need more face time with you? Do they need different tools? And so on. The question I would ask them is – what do you need in order to collaborate with me?
In addition to hosting professional development workshops, I attempt to share information electronically from time to time in order to build a set of storytelling resources. Also, I make time in my schedule for weekly check-ins (via email) with colleagues from various departments. I wonder if using a project management tool such as Basecamp might be helpful in terms of better meeting their needs. Certainly worth considering. Thanks for your thoughtful reply!