At the heart of digital? Your story

The challenge for organizations is to stay human in the digital age. We do that with story.

Stories connect us. They’re how we make sense of this wacky world. They’re how our members and supporters understand what’s realistic, what’s possible and what we can achieve. Stories expand – or limit – what we do.

Stories are also how people gauge your organization’s place in the world, its relevance, its value and its worth. That’s why it’s vital to ground your overall digital efforts in your story – not in disconnected, frantic and random digital content and social media posts (something most of us can relate to).

The worlds needs clear, strong, nonprofit voices, because we’re not the only ones “telling our story” and “connecting” with people. We need to arm ourselves with the ability to tell story because we live in a world dominated by commercial forces who are keen to tell us their’s.

Of course, our organizations can’t compete with the deep digital pockets of big business and global marketing firms.

But there’s one place where we win, hands-down.

Our organizations have the best stories. We are story-rich. We are loaded with story. We are laden with it, even as we are immersed in turn by “brand stories” foisted on us from every digital angle.

The idea of organizational narrative is not a new one. The marketing industry didn’t invent storytelling (even if it’s constantly refining it). We’ve been telling stories since forever. Mythology isn’t just for ancient Greece, or nation-states, or politicians.

It’s not for nothing humans tell stories. Stories are the original World Wide Web. And we can weave a tangled web or a good yarn.

Folks like a good yarn. Today’s era of digital connectedness beckons us forward.

THE CHALLENGE: GETTING YOUR STORY HEARD

Organizations working in community and health services, social inclusion, the arts, education; unions; groups working on environmental and other advocacy causes – these are the organizations with the best stories to tell.

But these are usually the very actors with the least amount of resources to tell those stories.

And if a story gets told these days and nobody hears it, does it, uh, really get told?

I’ve worked with many social mission organizations, comparatively large ones and small ones alike. All of them struggle with a shortage of communications capacity, digital or otherwise. Worse, many of them are stuck in an outdated “broadcast” model of communications which features a “one-to-many” mindset.

Not only does this put tremendous pressure on the poor one(s) whose job it is to “communicate” anything and everything to do with the organization, but it also ignores today’s ongoing, interactive reality. We live in a multi-casting world now, where broadcasting has morphed into a conversational, many-to-many context.

Our groups need to make this mind-shift as well. The good news is that it’s never been easier to go from a scarcity of communications capacity to an abundance – if we leverage the digital skills and interests of our people.

Is your response something along the lines of “We can’t afford to increase digital capacity?” Nonprofits can’t afford not to, if they want to be heard. They’ve got great stories to tell – and they need to tell them by creating the content that their potential supporters will consume.

I get it. Sometimes the budgets just aren’t there, at least for big production values or high-priced digital marketing agencies. That’s why it’s time for internal culture shifts to sweep across social mission organizations to seize the moment, and the tools, to empower their people to share the telling of their organization’s story and to really engage in digital storytelling.

Story is not a campaign. It’s a culture.

THE SOLUTION: TELL DIVERSE STORIES IN DIVERSE WAYS

Today’s digital tools allow for creative and diverse storytelling. There has never before been so many ways to tell your story and connect with people. It can be overwhelming, and difficult to decide what “form” to employ for any given story.

Your story-form will depend on your goals in that particular moment. You might build connection, a sense of empathy, telling a story with images or voice – for example in slideshows or photo essays, or in audio form, with people’s actual voices resonating in listeners’ heads.

Perhaps you need to dive a little deeper, emotionally, and you have to create something powerful and short. Tell that story in video, showing viewers what the reality is and how your people are working to make things better.

Perhaps you need to present a more nuanced and evidence-based argument – then a written story-form might be best.

(Of course, you might mix and mingle story-forms to positive effect. These are just suggestions, or guidelines, not rules!)

KEYS FOR ARTICULATING YOUR STORY

Speaking of diverse stories, it’s safe to assume that most organizations are sitting on a story gold mine that goes miles deep into the earth. Every person that walks through your doors has a story. The issues you work on are full of stories.

Gold mine, meet digital content producer. Just don’t strip-mine your stories. Develop that gold mine in an artisanal fashion. Sustainably. Take care of your stories, and they’ll take care of you.

Tell stories to your heart’s (digital) content.

Key #1 – Tell stories about your values, your mission, your raison d’être

This isn’t about self-promotion or lecturing about how great or noble you are. It’s about connecting your values with the activities you undertake that make a difference in the world. For a union, this might be about the power of solidarity, so stories how members come together to help someone are great stories to share. Stories about how unions make the community stronger or the workplace more fair help workers connect to their unions – and show non unionized workers how unions can make a difference.

Stories about the raison d’être of your organization are stories about making a difference, righting a wrong, empowering marginalized communities, or overcoming incredible obstacles. These are powerful stories.

Key #2 – Tell stories about your people

Nonprofits of all kinds come face-to-face with stories of connection, hardship and triumph, no matter their mission.

They might serve meals to senior citizens, take care of stray animals, organize against environmentally harmful development or settle newcomers into new and confusing and sometimes hostile surroundings. Whatever they do, chances are sky-high that they’re stuffed full of workers and volunteers who care deeply about people and will work for less money and the chance to make a difference in the local fabric.

Nonprofits of all sizes and purposes live the daily dramas and breathe the rich oxygen of the full theatre of human affairs, often up close and personal, and always with a sense of responsibility for the greater good – despite diminishing resources and constant downward pressure to conform politically and stick to their own individual knitting. The stories of the people in and around your organization are inspiring, real and relatable. They’re your secret weapon.

Key #3 – Tell stories about your issues, causes and campaigns 

Stories about the issues you work on can be told in any number of ways. They can be briefings, updates, news items, analyses, listicles, fact sheets, primers, backgrounders – you get the idea.

You can write these stories using whatever form meets your goals. These kinds of stories can be readily incorporated into online learning programs or compiled as materials for activist kits. They are flexible and can serve many different purposes.

Remember, you can also write these kinds of stories connected to your people, exploring how issues affect people’s daily lives. Or at least include people in the telling of these stories. Facts and figures are one thing; drawing on empathic connections is another. Presenting relatable case studies helps members or the public connect with the human element in the middle of your campaign.

Lest we forget, we’re campaigning to build more inclusive and equitable communities for everyone, so telling stories about people whose lives have been affected by the issue you’re working on is always going to resonate more immediately than policy or statistics. (No offence to policy analysts and statisticians intended.)

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

Going digital is, ultimately, all about telling your story. It’s about building your organization’s capacity to tell its story in the ways in which people are consuming stories these days. Your members are (increasingly) using digital tools to learn, connect and communicate. The public is doing the same. And you want everyone to be able to hear your story, be moved by your story, and share your story.

Nonprofits may never be able to compete with the marketing industry or big brands on scale or scope. They may be disappointed if they expect every story to go viral. And they may risk losing their own plot by over-valuing data and metrics and internalizing the logic of advertising above the value of building human connection.

Data is important, but data is not the goal here. The goal is to keep it human – inside and out – as we develop digital capacity. The goal is to build the energy – for movement, for change, for growth.

The goal is to move your organization from a culture of content consumption to one of content creation.