Truths and mantras for storytelling

Roger Burks, Online Communications Officer, World Bank—

There is no template for nonprofit storytelling – but there are truths.

I’ve seen and heard many examples of how storytelling has failed or fallen short at a variety of organizations, from big to small, local to international. Most of the time, it comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of where an organization’s storytelling must not only start, but also from where it must be sustained.

Storytelling has to be grassroots. It has to have room to evolve. It must be democratic. This is because, in its very essence, storytelling is highly personal – even when it’s a communications strategy. As a result, an organization’s storytelling must be crafted with participation in mind. It has to always keep in mind the individual staff members, donors, clients and others from whom the stories will come.

And that means considering their time constraints, their skill level, their passions and their ideas. You shouldn’t expect them to increase their workload or spend a lot of time learning to write for your blog. You should make it easy for them not only to participate, but also feel a sense of ownership and pride in the stories they’re telling for your organization.

Since my time at Mercy Corps – and at each subsequent stop along my journey – I’ve emphasized four simple mantras to help build a culture of storytelling that leads to vibrant blogs and other communications platforms:

  • Authenticity, not polish
  • Encouragement, not pressure
  • Quality, not quantity
  • Show, don’t tell

The Mercy Corps Blog was built with those truths and mantras in mind – and in just over two years’ time, it featured 1,090 blog entries from 265 bloggers in 42 countries. What’s more, only 228 of those entries (21 percent) came from Mercy Corps’ communications staff. The remainder came from field officers, health workers, logisticians, donors, drivers, and engineers. We gave people the chance to participate on their own terms, in their own time, with their own voice.

In my current role at the World Bank, we’ve just begun a new blog for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) – a very technical topic area. The focus of the blog is to help clear misconceptions and encourage debate about PPPs in international development work. And, just as with the Mercy Corps blog, it is (and will be) powered by practitioners instead of professional communications staff. In that way, it will remain authentic and authoritative, individual and engaging.

All of us, in our own very unique ways, are storytellers. Each of us has stories we can’t wait to tell others. And most of us in nonprofit work have real passion for what we do and who we serve. Encourage those voices. Channel that energy. Discover the stories – and truths – within your organization.