For more than two years, we’ve been helping social impact organizations become storytelling organizations through (the recently revamped) Hatch for Good.
Philanthropy plays a critical role in helping social impact organizations tell stories more effectively. And many foundations are already investing in strategic storytelling—including The Rockefeller Foundation, the supporter of Hatch for Good.
And as more and more foundations start to focus on storytelling as a way to increase the impact of their work (and their grantees’ work), we’ve noticed a few big patterns that have emerged. First we outline a few of the internal process challenges, then address what we’ve seen in terms of developing stories and engaging audiences with content. We’ve included some guidance that could help philanthropies integrate storytelling into their work more seamlessly.
- You’re Gonna Have to Bust Some Silos. Although some foundations are making strides in breaking down silos to create storytelling organizations, most philanthropies aren’t there yet. Foundations must develop systems for how to work with colleagues and grantees on story identification, story collection, production and engagement. (Please see here for our take on what a storytelling organization looks like.) For your foundation, it may make sense to identify ONE program and ONE communications staffer that can pilot an approach to identify solutions that work for that organization and its grantees.
- Get Senior Management Visibly Engaged. In fact, this goes for both philanthropic and social impact organizations. For storytelling to really become a core part of an organization’s culture, the senior managers have to be supportive of the effort. We say “visibly,” because the entire organization must see that this is a leadership priority. Check out this piece from Neill Coleman, VP of Global Communications at The Rockefeller Foundation, on how to make the case for investing in storytelling within your organization.
- Carrots? Yes. Sticks? Yes. Since we launched Hatch for Good, we’ve come to the conclusion that foundations need both carrots (incentives) and sticks (requirements) to get grantees to participate actively in storytelling efforts. Some foundations have considered working story creation/collection into grant requirements, while others have sponsored storytelling contests to help create incentives. A contest with a small operating grant is enough to inspire many grantees to create and submit stories—as long as there’s a clear sense of requirements and expectations.
- Stories Exist—The Challenge is Narrowing It Down. Through workshops on Hatch for Good, including the one at ComNet15, it’s become increasingly clear that organizations aren’t short on stories. In fact, deciding which stories to focus on and which characters to highlight is a real challenge to most people. We have suggested many times that organizations shouldn’t try to “do it all” in one story—but instead think about using the Social Impact Story Map to develop a series of stories that all help to reinforce the organizations’ overall narrative framework.
- Grantees Need Help on Engagement. This may seem like an obvious one, but, as Garth Moore of the ONE Campaign points out in his article on the “60/40 Rule,” most organizations don’t spend nearly enough time on engaging audiences with the content they create.
Far too much effort still goes into one-time hits like lengthy reports, press releases, and tweets—without consideration for how that content can be repurposed effectively to give the organization even more mileage and exposure. For more guidance on how to effectively repurpose content, see this post by Jereme Bivins, Digital Media Manager at The Rockefeller Foundation.
There is still a lot of (legitimate) buzz about storytelling, and many foundations and social impact organizations are making progress. But we all still have a long way to go. We hope this helps provide some food for thought for how to further build your organization’s storytelling efforts.
RJ Bee is Senior Vice President at Hattaway Communications.
Want to revisit some of the lessons shared from our breakout presenters and workshop leaders at ComNet15? Now you can.
Below, you’ll find the presentation decks from some of the pre-conference workshops and breakout sessions at ComNet15. You can download, share, and even get in touch with presenters on Twitter. If you have questions about a presentation you attended that’s not listed below, let us know.
Building a Sustainable Content Strategy — Jamie Perez, Nitya Chambers, Ashley Lusk
Communication Apocalypse: How Will You Respond When Zombies Attack — Beth Kanter
Telling Stories with Data — Taj Carson
Demystifying Design: Tips and Tricks to Create Better Work — Elke Dochtermann
The Art of the Social Blockbuster — Jean Ellen Cowgill
Ready Are You? Communications Jedi Training For Your Next Frontier — Stefan Lanfer, Judith Zimmer, Daniella Legér
Let’s Talk About Race: Communicating Effectively for Social Change After Baltimore and Ferguson — Kate Shatzkin, Rebecca Noricks, Diane Camper, Rachel Godsil, Alexis McGill Johnson
In Over Your Head? How Foundations and Nonprofits Can Carefully Tread Politically Charged Waters — Shaun Adamec
Journalism, Art, and Impact: Blending Journalism, Storytelling and the Arts to Engage Communities to Bring About Change — Robert Rosenthal, Annie Chabel, Dr. Lindsay Green-Barber, Tanya Barrientos
By Maxwell King and Doug Root
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Change Agent
Last summer, librarians at the Carnegie Library branch in Oakmont, a working-class suburb northeast of Pittsburgh, placed a “Please Help Yourself!” sign next to a bowl of healthful food items at the computer station where neighborhood children were spending most of their vacation days. For many, there was little food available in their homes at lunchtime, so the granola bars and other snacks were snatched up quickly. Not that the children noticed, but at the bottom section of the sign, next to a stock image of a flower with a smiling face was the note: “Made possible by The Pittsburgh Foundation.”
“They are here from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon—no kidding,” the branch’s director, Beth Mellor, wrote in a thank-you note for the modest contributions that came from several of the Foundation’s donors. “They know they are in a safe place with the snacks and our children’s librarian, who is wonderful to them.”
In January, Donald Block, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, wrote a letter thanking our Foundation for grants supporting the GED program. “Andrew is one of the students whose lives you have helped change,” Block wrote of the Pittsburgher in his late 20s who had been funneled into special education classes during his school years and eventually dropped out to do construction work. Years later, he tried to start his own contracting business, but couldn’t qualify for a business loan without a GED diploma, so he enrolled in the Literacy Council program. “Andrew’s teacher instantly noticed a strong work ethic and dedication in class,” Block wrote. “. . . He passed the exam on the first try and is now moving forward to establish his own company.”
These are truly heartwarming stories about hyper-local, person-to-person philanthropy, but before we all get too entranced, consider that in that same period, the beloved community foundation was flexing its civic muscles on a broad agenda that had as much to do with influencing the city’s sense of itself as encouraging its philanthropy. Peel back the layers of interaction on any number of issues—depoliticizing city government hiring, investing in arts and culture, confronting racial inequity, defending freedom of expression—and the same community foundation as the one listed on the sign with the smiling flower is weighing in, albeit with a heftier profile: 13th largest in the country with more than $1 billion in assets and nearly 2,000 donor advised funds.
And the bigger, bolder profile often has invited not-so-nice missives—from old-fashioned poisoned pens to toxic tweets—that can outnumber the thank-yous from the likes of librarians and literacy workers.
Since summer, the Foundation has been in the public spotlight for leading the purchase of a bankrupt African-American arts-and-culture center with a promise to restructure and reprogram; for running a region-wide campaign that raised nearly $1 million in 24 hours to assist the homeless; for supporting a grantee artist who faced death threats for wading into the Palestinian-Israeli firestorm by way of an art exhibit-as-restaurant named Conflict Kitchen; and for its embrace of a college scholarship program, The Pittsburgh Promise, that some see as shutting out the African-American students who need it most.
From the vantage point of our extensive experience in the foundation and daily journalism worlds, such dichotomy in place-based philanthropy is exactly the way it should be. Few institutions get as close to ground level as a community foundation in enabling people, even those of relatively modest means, to set up charitable funds and do life-improving good in the place where they live and work. And few institutions operate at a higher level of public trust than community foundations, a position that gives them sound footing to push ambitious agendas, remain above the fray, and marshal forces to get big things done.
For both these roles to play effectively, storytelling and messaging are critically important. If they are authentic and compelling, they will blunt unwarranted criticism and attract powerful partners. And the communications responsibility goes well beyond the practice of philanthropy. The stories that a community foundation chooses to tell can actually shape a city’s personality. They influence how the city is perceived by residents, as well as by visitors.
In his keynote address at last year’s national Community Foundation conference, James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa who served as Council on Foundations president for 14 years, exhorted community foundations to move beyond the 20th-century grant-enabler role, in part, by more public communications. Their 21st-century responsibility is to be, he said, “a social enterprise that strategically deploys not just its financial capital, but its social, moral, intellectual, and reputational capital, as well.”
It’s a less comfortable mode of behavior, beginning with, says Joseph, “shedding our inherited fear of public life, especially the delusion that the community foundation is so constrained in what it can say or do about public policy that we must restrict our presence to promoting and facilitating charity, rather than engaging in philanthropy that informs or enriches public policy.”
Now celebrating its 70th year, The Pittsburgh Foundation got over its fear of performing in public long before our arrival. But in this anniversary period, we are aiming to move it up a notch with a broad initiative we’re titling “100 Percent Pittsburgh”—meaning that 100 percent of the population of our region participates in what we refer to as “the new Pittsburgh,” a revitalized city in terms of economic growth and general vitality. We’re convinced that a community foundation has the standing and the buy-in from public and private sectors to achieve a new Pittsburgh worthy of the caring spirit of the old Pittsburgh.
This initiative involves asking Pittsburgh as a community to invest as much in its personality development as its physical development. A growing economy is wonderful, but so is inclusivity. Burgeoning development is fantastic, but so is equality in opportunity.
The plan requires spending some of that “reputational capital” that Joseph refers to on recruiting powerful partners and placing the Foundation in the public spotlight as 100 Percent Pittsburgh’s chief storyteller. Since a community foundation is leading the charge, the expectation will be high for an authentic and compelling narrative arc—not the faux versions we see so often in slick marketing campaigns for goods and causes.
In their totality, the stories and messages for 100 Percent Pittsburgh must shift our Foundation from what The New York Times columnist David Brooks describes as philanthropists being perceived not as the means, but as the end. We won’t just be serving as a vehicle for our donors’s usual giving. We will be asking them to tell their Pittsburgh stories by way of their authentic experiences and to help develop pathways that reach vulnerable groups.
Brooks has written that the conventional process for understanding an intractable social problem with the intent of solving it involves collecting data, academic-style research, and often expert journalistic narrative. But the conventional usually isn’t enough to achieve deep understanding that leads to success. “The highest rung on the stairway to understanding is intimacy,” writes Brooks. “ . . .Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad.”
It follows, from our experience, that the storytelling by a community foundation bent on improving the personality of a city as much as its quality of life must enable people to tap into these qualities. To understand people who are vulnerable, we must be vulnerable to all sorts of things, telling stories that lead people to, as Brooks puts it, “bow down before the knowledge of participation. . .walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.”
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Doug Root is vice president of communications at The Pittsburgh Foundation.