Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 31, 2009

Connecting, part 2: Stories can build giving, community

By Todd Cohen

The giving sector needs to do a better job telling stories.

Giving is all about community.

We give to help one another, to make our communities better.

In giving, in sharing who we are and what we have, we improve our communities and ourselves.

Change, fixing what is wrong, is what charities and givers are all about, and telling stories lies at the heart of change.

Stories capture charities’ and givers’ vision for change.

Charities, which consist of groups of people who work together to make a difference, can make a greater impact by becoming better at telling their stories.

Stories are tools charities can use to show the problems they address,
share their ideas for fixing those problems and help people see how
they can give their own resources -- their time, know-how, energy,
connections, money -- to making our communities better places to live
and work.

Nonprofit leaders who want to improve their organizations and communities need to push for change continually by telling stories that capture – simply, clearly, passionately and authentically -- the need for change and share their vision for how to make it happen.

Sadly, many leaders in the giving sector who should be leading the charge for change are terrible at communication.

They hoard what they know, sharing only shreds of information, and only with a small circle of insiders among their staff, board, funders and partners.

And when they speak, it often is in the vague, dense, righteous or overblown jargon of their field and their profession.

They also fail to truly try to find out what their co-workers, clients, partners and colleagues think and want by asking for their stories and actually listening to their answers.

That is not leadership.

Leadership and change are collaborative, requiring leaders who listen, include, reach out and share what they know.

A leader who listens and connects with people can tell stories that create common ground with the organization’s board and staff, and with people outside the organization, including clients, givers, funding organizations and partners.

Leaders tell stories that capture their passion for their cause and share their vision for the change that is needed and how to create it.

Leaders do not impose change; they build teams and help their teammates work together to map the future.

The heart of that work is storytelling, which requires listening, asking and sharing, not dictating, managing and controlling.

Storytelling is hard work that requires clarity, simplicity, directness, patience and persistence.

Leaders need to repeat their stores and continually ask to hear the stories of the people they work with.

Only through repetition and constant questioning, sharing and tinkering will the stories connect and change emerge.

Change depends on teamwork and trust, both of which depend on open, honest and continual communication.

Leaders in the giving sector talk a lot about the need for transparency.

But until leaders move beyond business as usual and learn how to listen, share what they know and tell stories that engage their staff, board, funders and partners in their cause, true transparency and change will be an elusive grail.

Next: Connecting, part 3: Media relations critical for nonprofits


  • At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good advice. My nonprofit has had positive response to our newsletters that include a personal client (or volunteer) story. Sample newsletters at I once read a newsletter that included (at least) 8 photos of (or including) their Executive Director. YAWN!!!


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