People spend a good part of their lives trying to figure out who they are- understanding their identity. As organizations, however, we usually focus on what we do instead of who we are. We know what we represent, what we’re for and against, how we present ourselves to the rest of the world, etc., but we don’t know our story. Positioning organizations as influencers requires us to rethink this strategy. Ultimately, being an influencer is about building relationships and creating community around our organizations. This means we need to humanize ourselves. We need a story of who we are- a unique narrative that will resonate with people and help them to identify with our cause.
3 Steps to Crafting Your Organization’s Narrative
1. Ask your community
When we first begin to consider who we are, we have to recognize that our organization is made up of multiple individuals with their own stories. These stories are vital to understanding our larger narrative. So, first thing’s first: interviews.
Start by speaking with five to ten people connected to your organization- staff, board members, volunteers, beneficiaries, members of the community- anyone who is affected by the work you do. Ask them questions to learn about their relationship to your work. What does your organization mean to them? What would they be doing if your organization didn’t exist? Do they have a meaningful memory from their time with you? Keep the questions as open-ended as possible. It’s amazing what comes from this exercise.
Most of us who run nonprofits think we know exactly what we’re doing, why we do it, and how it’s perceived by others, but we’re usually missing something. By taking the time to interview all the different stakeholders connected to our organization, we get a personified understanding of the role we play in our community, and we may be surprised by the results. When we start listening to everyone’s perspective of the role our organization plays in their lives, we see that we mean so much more than the services we provide.
2. Ask yourself
Step two is the reverse of step one. We begin the process of crafting our narrative by finding the stories of those who are influenced by us, but to tell our story, we have to see how we are influenced by them. So, it’s time to flip it. Ask the same questions you asked in step one, but this time ask them of yourself: What does this person mean to our organization? What would our organization be like without them? Do we have a meaningful memory of our time with them?
By comparing our community’s experience of us to our experience of our community, we begin to see a kind of plot emerge. Our organization’s role within our community begins to take on an identity of its own. Through story, we’re able to understand the relationships between our community members and us. This helps us to erase the boundary typically erected between organizations and the communities they serve. It enables us to craft a narrative that is holistic in its approach, relatable in its presentation, and human at its core.
3. Identify the theme
Through this process, we begin to see a theme emerge that is far more human than a mission statement. This is where our narrative begins. In the case of re:imagine/ATL (from our first element of influence), the theme that emerged was diversity. When Good Done Well worked with an arts education after-school program, we discovered their theme was family. The theme acts as the anchor of our narrative. It helps us understand the feeling we’re trying to communicate through the story of our organization.
The theme is the connective tissue between you and your community. You’ll be able to figure it out by listening for similarities in the first two steps. Some word will keep coming up, or some emotion will be expressed, or multiple people will get excited about the same thing. Ultimately, understanding your theme comes down to instinct. You’ll just know. This theme is going to inform everything about your narrative: its tone of voice, how your organization is positioned, the anecdotes you choose to tell, the font you use, the pictures you post, the photographer you work with… everything. When you understand what that theme is, it will connect everything else.
4. Build the narrative
From the first two steps, we collected a lot of stories related to the work we do. By intentionally weaving together these stories with their theme we begin to build our narrative. Do you ever notice how so many nonprofits post pictures on Instagram or Facebook with a quick, hollow description (I call this obligatory social media), or requests for donations are sent on formal letterhead? So many of the communications from nonprofits could be a template. Just switch the nouns to represent the cause of your choice and hit send. This is not the way to build a community. As you begin to build your organization’s narrative, ask yourself three questions:
Is it Unique? Is it Memorable? Is it Personal?
A narrative is not a creation story- it’s not something that you write down once and forget about except for copy and pasting it on your annual report once a year. Just like our personal narratives, the narrative of our organization is a living, breathing story that guides us, moves with us, and transcends us. Our narrative is our ethos and our identity. It informs every aspect of our communications strategy- website, social media, PR… and it informs our programming, fundraising, interior decorating, hiring, firing, it informs everything we do.
Case Study: DIGDEEP
Three years ago, before Good Done Well was even an idea, I started working with a small organization called DIGDEEP. I could go on and on about how incredible the organization is. Their founder is one of those people who embodies multiple rare, enviable qualities: work ethic, innovation, creativity, passion… he’s a visionary who also happens to get shit done. When I began working with them, they were building water systems for communities in Africa, but around that time, they learned about water poverty in America and begin re-focusing their work on Native American communities.
We worked together on an awareness campaign called #4Liters. By taking the #4Liters Challenge, people agreed to spend 24 hours living on 4 liters of water- the minimum amount of water needed per day to survive, according to the World Health Organization- instead of the typical 400 liters. My first two years working on the campaign we worked to get YouTube influencers to take the challenge, hoping to raise awareness and encourage the public to take the challenge themselves.
Towards the end of my second year with the #4Liters challenge, I sat down with DIGDEEP’s founder and learned that the #4Liters campaign went way beyond my initial understanding. He explained to me the idea of water as a human right. For the last two campaigns, we had been focusing on the simplest version of the challenge- right now you’re using a lot of water, spend one day using less- but the narrative of DIGDEEP wasn’t conservation, it was water as a human right. The point of the #4Liters Challenge wasn’t getting people to use less water for one day, it was getting people to empathize with the millions of people who were denied that basic human right on a daily basis.
This year, we’ve spent more time crafting the #4Liters narrative and thinking about how we can connect the work we do to the stories of our community. We’ve developed a narrative that is unique in two ways: the #4Liters campaign is a water campaign not about conservation, but about water as a human right, and DIGDEEP is the only organization working on behalf of the 1.3 million Americans currently living without access to safe, clean water (other organizations do this work internationally). This narrative is memorable because they work to weave together the stories of their entire community – the families they serve, the people who support them, and Native Americans currently fighting for water rights. People who hear about DIGDEEP remember the deeply personal stories surrounding their work. This satisfies the last criterion- that the narrative be personal.
In three years, #4Liters has evolved from a simple awareness challenge into a way to advocate for our neighbors, and connect a community of people from extraordinarily different backgrounds around a theme and a narrative that resonates with all of us.
Why should you craft a narrative?
Yes, technically nonprofits are organizations. We do things. We work hard to make the world better. But behind our work is the story of our community. I can’t yet give you the empirical value of taking the time to understand yours, but I promise you that all you have to do is start interviewing your community to see for yourself. What we do matters, and so does who we are, because lots of organizations are doing what you’re doing (or at least something similar), but you’re the only you. Who you are differentiates you from everyone else. So, take the time to craft you narrative, and then use it in every single piece of communications you produce. Two things will happen: you’ll start to look forward to producing communications, and people will start to look forward to hearing what you have to say.
We see you. We hear you. We love you.
With Gratitude, GDW