Julie Fahnestock is the Founder of B Storytelling. She is committed to “celebrating the extraordinary work” of social enterprises by popularizing their impact through storytelling. She has an MBA in Managing for Sustainability and is a writer for 3BL Media and Just Means. When she’s not writing, you can find her surfing with her husband somewhere along Florida’s coastline. If you spot a tall surfer, falling off her board on most waves, you’ll know it’s her.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of travelling the red, clay mountains of the West Bank. Hired by Canaan Fair Trade, a Palestinian, fair trade, olive oil company to conduct a research impact assessment, my goal was to discover if the benefits of fair trade were making a difference in the lives of olive farmers. For three months I worked with a translator and photographer, listening to the stories of dozens of farmers and their families. We took buses, taxis, and hiked through the fields to reach the farmers. They graciously invited me into their homes, offered me lunch during Ramadan and were patient waited as I asked them dozens of questions, each translated back and forth from English to Arabic. The data I gathered was powerful. I reported on the impact of pruning trainings, the increase in productions and the financial gain on the farmers’ incomes. Fair trade works in Palestine, I discovered. My belief in the fair trade model grew and it was rewarding to know I had been part of the first, fair trade, research project in the West Bank.
But it wasn’t the outcomes of the research I told my family about over dinner when I came home. I told them about Haj Bashir Habaybeh who planted sunflowers in his fields simply because they brought joy to his wife. I gushed over Em Shehadeh, who defied cultural norms and began a league for women leaders. I showed them the pictures of Awad Alqerem, for the first time, holding a bottle of olive oil pressed from his trees. Over a dinner of fish and veggies sautéed in Canaan Fair Trade’s olive oil, I told my family and friends about the stories of every farmer I’d met.
The farmers’ stories were an unintentional outcome of my research assignment. But what if they had been a parallel goal? What if every activity of an organization incorporated storytelling strategies?
Often we don’t realize that activities which seem mundane like logic model creation and program development have powerful stories waiting to be discovered. We just have to pay attention. All of the work we do presents an opportunity to take our stakeholders deeper into who we are, how we operate and how we achieve our missions. Stories draw our supporters closer while simultaneously building our expertise and credibility.
What if your staff viewed each of your activities as an opportunity to create deeper engagement for your donors, your board and your clients? What if your stories were discovered on purpose? And not just by your marketing team, but by every staff and board member? Your narrative would be diverse, interesting and engaging! And, you might just find an entirely new brand like some of my clients have through their work with my team at B Storytelling.
Here are a few ways you can build a culture of storytelling:
Journaling: Before you write me off on how the corniness of journaling sounds, let me say that I’m not suggesting journaling as in “Dear Diary, Today I ate a tuna sandwich.” No. What I am suggesting is that intentional reflection on our conversations, projects and challenges is a great way to make storytelling deliberate. Encourage your staff to take fifteen minutes a day to reflect. Maybe they’ll write about a conversation or a moment of gratitude or an interaction with a client. Tell them to be as specific and as vivid as possible with details. Foster their creativity by suggesting they keep a video journal or draw illustrations. And then, at staff meetings carve out time for your team to share their discoveries with an assigned scribe and a recording device. In no time, you’ll have plenty of great and unexpected content for your monthly newsletter, social media calendar, donor meetings and fundraising campaigns.
And major, side benefit to sharing stories at staff meetings: You’ll learn more about your
organization than you ever knew. It will connect you as a team and keep everyone in touch
with the larger system of your organization.
Share the Storytelling Hat: Ask staff members to rotate the storyteller role in each of your activities. The assigned storyteller is designated to pay attention to the details, the conversations, and the opportunity for follow-up discovery. For example, if you run an after-school program, the storyteller’s job might be to pay attention to how the kids interact with the staff or what they say about their experience. The storyteller might notice one student offering kindness to another or a staff member exuding leadership in a new way. Have the storyteller take detailed notes and share them with your communications team.
Just Ask: What I’m not suggesting here is surveys. No. Never. Don’t waste your time with surveys. They are boring and robotic. Get personal. On a continual basis, ask your clients or customers very conversational questions about how your work has impacted them. Keep it casual, but intentional. Maybe do it over a cup of coffee. Do the same with your staff, board and anyone else who walks through your doors. You’ll be amazed by what they say. The feedback will be golden and it will remind you why you really do love the work you do, even on the hard days. Trust me. People love sharing their experiences. All you have to do is ask.
Stories invite others to participate with us. They are the bridges in our communities, the way we know that change is happening. Stories make impact tangible, connecting us human to human. When we make storytelling intentional, we remember who we are, discover new reasons to celebrate our work and keep us unified.
With ten years of experience in the non-profit world, I understand how overwhelming branding, PR and the expectation of a monthly newsletter can feel. B Storytelling exists to support social enterprises in their storytelling work so that you can focus on what’s most important: your mission. We love helping non-profits discover their impact and create strategic ways for which to communicate it. Check out B Storytelling’s work on the web and let us know how we can help you build a culture of deeper engagement and connection through storytelling!