The State of Storytelling in Philanthropy

Five tips to help build your organization’s storytelling efforts.

For more than two years, we’ve been helping social impact organizations become storytelling organizations through (the recently revamped) Storytelling for Good.

Philanthropy plays a critical role in helping social impact organizations tell stories more effectively. And many foundations are already investing in strategic storytelling—including The Rockefeller Foundation, the supporter of Storytelling for Good.

And as more and more foundations start to focus on storytelling as a way to increase the impact of their work (and their grantees’ work), we’ve noticed a few big patterns that have emerged. First we outline a few of the internal process challenges, then address what we’ve seen in terms of developing stories and engaging audiences with content. We’ve included some guidance that could help philanthropies integrate storytelling into their work more seamlessly.

1. You’re Gonna Have to Bust Some Silos. Although some foundations are making strides in breaking down silos to create storytelling organizations, most philanthropies aren’t there yet. Foundations must develop systems for how to work with colleagues and grantees on story identification, story collection, production and engagement. For your foundation, it may make sense to identify ONE program and ONE communications staffer that can pilot an approach to identify solutions that work for that organization and its grantees.

2. Get Senior Management Visibly Engaged. In fact, this goes for both philanthropic and social impact organizations. For storytelling to really become a core part of an organization’s culture, the senior managers have to be supportive of the effort. We say “visibly,” because the entire organization must see that this is a leadership priority. Check out this piece from Neill Coleman, VP of Global Communications at The Rockefeller Foundation, on how to make the case for investing in storytelling within your organization.

3. Carrots? Yes. Sticks? Yes. Since we launched Storytelling for Good, we’ve come to the conclusion that foundations need both carrots (incentives) and sticks (requirements) to get grantees to participate actively in storytelling efforts. Some foundations have considered working story creation/collection into grant requirements, while others have sponsored storytelling contests to help create incentives. A contest with a small operating grant is enough to inspire many grantees to create and submit stories—as long as there’s a clear sense of requirements and expectations.

4. Stories Exist—The Challenge is Narrowing It Down. Through workshops on Storytelling for Good, including the one at ComNet 2015, it’s become increasingly clear that organizations aren’t short on stories. In fact, deciding which stories to focus on and which characters to highlight is a real challenge to most people. We have suggested many times that organizations shouldn’t try to “do it all” in one story—but instead think about using the Social Impact Story Map to develop a series of stories that all help to reinforce the organizations’ overall narrative framework.

5. Grantees Need Help on Engagement. This may seem like an obvious one, but, as Garth Moore of the ONE Campaign points out in his article on the “60/40 Rule,” most organizations don’t spend nearly enough time on engaging audiences with the content they create.

Far too much effort still goes into one-time hits like lengthy reports, press releases, and tweets—without consideration for how that content can be repurposed effectively to give the organization even more mileage and exposure. For more guidance on how to effectively repurpose content, see this post by Jereme Bivins, Digital Media Manager at The Rockefeller Foundation.

There is still a lot of (legitimate) buzz about storytelling, and many foundations and social impact organizations are making progress. But we all still have a long way to go. We hope this helps provide some food for thought for how to further build your organization’s storytelling efforts.