Water Hub Blog

Learning how to tell your organization’s story

A graphic image with four different photos of people looking at the stars with text that says, “Telling your organization’s story: A discussion on how to get noticed, be heard, and elevate your story as an organization.”

Many people think that cranking out impressive data is the best way to show your impact, be it the number of comments supporting a bill, the amount of participants in your workshops, the acre-feet of water your green infrastructure project absorbs, or the number of engagements with your social media campaign. Yes, numbers count, but our reactions are rooted in emotion not our minds. We feel then think. So when we’re trying to reach people and create real change, it’s crucial to tell stories about how our work touches hearts.

How many times have you struggled because you know the work you’re doing is important and is making a difference, but you can’t find a good way to explain exactly how? Storytelling can help! You likely have many stories and anecdotes about your nonprofit in your back pocket. And while everyone has a story, few are familiar with frameworks and strategies that help you make others relate to the subject in your story. Relatable stories about real people with colorful details is the secret sauce to strengthen your organization’s vision and strategy.

In December, the Water Hub hosted a Telling Your Organization’s Story workshop  and roundtable that dived into frameworks, principles and examples to help you strengthen your organization’s vision and strategy through storytelling.

YouTube link to watch the full, two-part training recordings.

Key takeaways from our Telling Your Organization’s Story workshop:

  • We don’t use the same language but we get it. There are several ways to define this kind of work: public narrative, narrative change, narrative power, story-based strategy, cultural strategy, impact storytelling, among others. We don’t use the same terms but that’s fine because there is good alignment around our shared goals and motivations. There is a clear belief in the power of storytelling — and storytellers — in expressing our individual and organizational values and achieving goals. Check out Spotlight on Impact Storytelling by Liz Manne Strategy to learn more about the narrative work landscape.
  • Stories are at the center of narrative change work. Stories are like stars, narratives are like constellations, and culture is like a whole galaxy. When we talk about narrative change, story is the essential unit of change. Repeated over and over, through diverse platforms and channels, narrative becomes the story people accept. For example: wishing upon a shooting star. 
  • Telling multiple stories is crucial. Our lives, our cultures, and organizations are composed of many overlapping stories. In her remarkable TED talk: The Danger of a Single Story, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us that if we hear only a single story about a given person or entity, we risk a critical misunderstanding. We should embrace telling multiple stories about ourselves and our organizations.
  • A Story is grounded in a plot or conflict. A plot is initiated by a challenge that confronts a character (individual or collective) with a choice, which, in turn, yields an outcome. If a character does not choose, or if their choices have no bearing on the outcome, the story ceases to matter. Conflict doesn’t have to be a clash between people. It can be any tension point, for example, between the now and the future if change does not occur (the consequence of inaction). 
  • Stories can mobilize emotions to spark action. According to the People, Power and Change Framework by Marshal Ganz, a public narrative is the practice of translating values into action, based on the fact that values are experienced emotionally. A public narrative builds power by connecting the stories (why we must act now, heart) and the strategies (how we can act now, head) to spark action (what we must do now, hands). Organizing is about equipping people (constituency) with the power (narrative and strategy) to make change (real outcomes). 
A graphic image with two circles next to each other at the top with text that says, “strategy, head” and “narrative, heart.” An arrow from each circle points to the same third circle at the bottom with a text that says “shared understanding leads to action, hands.” The arrow from the “strategy” circle has text that lists “critical reflection on experience, how, cognitive, logos, analysis. The arrow from the “narrative” circle has text that lists “story telling of experience, why, affective, pathos, motivation.”
  • We are all natural storytellers. We all can learn to tell a story to move others to action. By learning how to tell a public narrative that bridges the self, us, and now, we can build trust within our group and engage others more effectively.
  • A Story of Self is about your calling to serve. What are the values that called you to this work? Why have you been called to serve? Values come to life by sharing moments in our lives that enable others to get and feel why we’ve been called to what we’ve been called to.
  • A Story of Us is about memorable moments. Who are your people? What connects you with the group? What are the shared values that anchor your community? A Story of Us is experiential rather than “categorical.” It’s not coming up with a list of values we can define. It’s sharing magic moments to bring alive values that we’ve shared as a group, values that we felt. 
  • A Story of Now is about meeting the moment. What is the urgent challenge you’re calling on your community to join you in acting on now? What can you accomplish together with your audience’s help? A good Story of Now requires bringing the urgency to meet the moment –  because of a need for change that cannot be denied AND moment of opportunity that may not return. A choice must be made: to act, or not to act; to act in this way, or in that way. 
  • Storytelling is a powerful tool to advance equity. While policy and politics offer a range of what is currently possible, stories free us from those limitations to imagine a new world, and embrace the transformation.

Telling Your Organization’s Story roundtable speaker highlights

As a complement to our workshop, the Water Hub hosted a roundtable to go deeper into why it’s important that we learn to tell our organization’s story in the first place. Our amazing speakers unpacked some examples of successful organizational storytelling as well as the challenges of communicating with funders and decision makers while aiming shift power dynamics. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation:

“Electoral work, issue-organizing, nonprofit work, artwork and writing — I don’t see any silos between them, it’s all interconnected to me… and [for me] there was a fundamental disconnect from the kind of work funders expected us to be proposing and work that would be impactful in my community. Where I grew up, a lot of nonprofits were just stuck in a way of doing the same kinds of work over and over again. And there is an egg-chicken situation with funding where you can’t get the funding to do the different work until you show them something tangible. So the storytelling component really came in as a way of pushing organizations to go beyond the limits of what we thought was possible.”

Ashley Fairbanks – 100% Campaign

“You can’t create change and get people to act until you’ll make connections with them around the story that you’re telling. One of the things that we’ve been lifting up is as an organization is really thinking about asset framing, which is a narrative model that defines people by their assets and aspirations. What we’ve been doing is basically reconnecting people to their histories of water… to say that we exist, that we have these stories. [To develop this] we are launching an artisan residence program to recall and restore cultural narratives including our injustice stories.”

Ayanna Jolivett McCloud – Bayou City Waterkeeper

“We’re always looking for a place that is welcoming to folks. We think about what is that ambience, message, or campaign that is real, [meaning] that it’s authentic and that actually makes people feel at home in either this movement or this moment. That’s always been our idea! [The form] changes, sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s graphic, sometimes it’s written word, but it’s always looking for that welcoming space.”

Marce G. Graudiņš – Azul

“There’s nothing that I like better than problem-solving and once I got into the environmental field one of the things that I saw quite early was that there was no way for different sides to actually connect in a meaningful way to move towards solutions without effective communications and understanding the stories… So I’ve pushed myself further and further into that world of storytelling on all sides, and I stressed it even in my latter days of the government that we have to understand the footprints that people walk in to fully understand how to truly solve those problems.”

Scott Gordon – Environmental Protection Network

“I try to be really conscious of the fact that most people don’t wake up caring about the issues that we care about. [People] care about things like paying their bills, getting their kids to school, and they have anxieties about things that are really real parts of their life, So, making sure that I ground all of the communications work I do on how I tell people that this is important to them. How do I meet them where they’re at without being condescending? Am I preaching to the choir or am I being honest in what I’m saying? That’s kind of my central guiding light.”

Ashley Fairbanks – 100% Campaign

“One thing I’ve been integrating into our work is rethinking power and how we fundraise is part of this. But first of all, I don’t even say fundraising anymore, I say mobilizing resources. I’ve shifted the language around that because language is critical. And it’s not only about the funding. We also think about what resources do our community, does our staff, does the organization need in order to maximize impact? A big chunk of that is money, but there’s plenty more. So rethinking the historic language is key. I’m only Interested in approaching funders as thought partners and to center reciprocity… So how can we as an organization with boots on the ground, help you solve some problems, what questions are you trying to solve? And I get super excited about getting more funds for our organization in this non hierarchical framework that really calls out power dynamics.”

Ayanna Jolivett McCloud – Bayou City Waterkeeper

“ Some institutions or organizations might not be your partners, but at least, you have to understand their perspectives, and what they bring to the table. Over the years, the one thing that I told people all along was you need to have alliances and people who know your story and have confidence in you and your abilities before a crisis exists. It is not a time to get to know someone when the crisis is amongst us. You don’t need to be looking for a fireman when the fire is blazing, you need to go down to the fire department, and introduce yourselves and have a relationship with those individuals well before that… oftentimes, our ability to reach out to governments and local community leadership needs to be cultivated.”

Scott Gordon – Environmental Protection Network

“One of the things that doesn’t get enough [attention] is the healing, the celebration, and the joy. Like somebody asked us the other day: Do you all have space for joy? Do you celebrate your wins? And we try, but not enough. We’re in this framework where folks want to move into seeing the solutions. But we bring in the music, the spoken word, and now, our famous party… we bring a live band and bring people together in the space of joy and in culture, for the Ocean.”

Marce G. Graudiņš – Azul

Narrative strategy resources from our speakers

  • Be sure to check out www.climateofpossibility.org, a climate communications project by Ashley Fairbanks that promotes hope to catalyze action
  • Learn about En El Mar, a creative campaign (they produced a musical album!) by Azul that celebrates life by the ocean and invites people to protect it

You can see the presentation slides here, and watch the full, two-part training recordings here. 

To keep up with our team and get the latest communications resources or workshops, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and sign up for our monthly-ish newsletter, the Water Cooler.

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