We live and tell an integrated story
We live and tell an integrated story, resisting the urge to craft a misleading or oversimplified narrative. Our story has many actors and is always being written in active partnership with those closest to the work.
The genesis of every nonprofit is a story—a protagonist, a problem or injustice, a witness, a spark of empathy, a vision for change. Over time, many of these stories intertwine and evolve into an organizational narrative that propels vision, programs, teams, and resources into reality.
But as nonprofits and leaders endeavor to live out our public story, we are under so much pressure to be (or to seem) more than we are.
We see needs in the world and can hardly live with incremental change (especially when the change other organizations promise seems so swift and dramatic). So we simplify the problem and over-promise on what our solution will accomplish. We promote simple success stories, create unrealistic expectations, and become subservient to a vision we were never capable of fulfilling.
The truth is that all nonprofit work is slower than we care to admit, fraught with ups and downs, progress and setbacks. Deep change can come from the work we do, but rarely does it emerge in a linear, evenly distributed fashion—so it cannot be easily or accurately represented in an email or 90-second video, a simple ratio on an assessment website, or an annual report.
Too often, we rewrite the roles of the people we serve as we tell the organization’s story. The need to tell a crisp story tempts us to make larger claims than are currently true. The messy reality can be compressed, polished, and stretched into oversimplified stories of impact. Despite our best intentions, beneficiaries may become used instead of honored; and donors may also become unwitting accomplices as they encourage and support our work without being able to see our stories in context.
Instead, we long to use our creative gifts to tell the truest version of our story rather than the grandest.
1. We are truthful and transparent with all constituencies—board, donors, beneficiaries, the public. Though we must vary emphases, modes of communication, sequence, and level of detail according to the audience and context, every version of our story aligns with the truth as we know it.
2. We are fiercely truthful about both the ambitious possibility of the mission and the limitations and obstacles that we will likely face. We root out hyperbole from our communication, instead using modesty and balance—for example, reporting good news as “progress” rather than as “success,” and reporting progress and setbacks in tandem with one another. We openly acknowledge failure, naming what we have learned without spreading blame.
3. We elevate the stories of the people we serve, honoring them as image-bearers with shared humanity and agency. We platform those closest to the mission as its chief protagonists and storytellers—highlighting their successes, sharing their names, and inviting them to read and contribute to our communications.
4. While we aim always to honor people, we steer clear of romanticism and sentimentality in our story, avoiding positive stereotypes just as much as negative ones. Instead, we celebrate steps of genuine progress in the communities we serve and refuse to overstate the role our work has played in their lives.
5. We tell our organizational story with many heroes, including other agencies and actors, without overreliance on the unique genius or call of any person or group. We actively solicit and celebrate the successes and contributions of others and resist elevating our organization by speaking negatively of others.
THE GOOD NEWS
Mark Twain once jotted in his notebook, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” In this spirit, a commitment to integration and truth in organizational communications is liberating. It sets us free from having to maintain multiple narratives about ourselves and our work. It deflates the temptation to manipulation and exploitation that comes with all cause-driven storytelling—even when we see others in our sector doing those very things. We shed the stress of trying to fulfill unrealistic promises, and the distortion in mission and core values that can creep in as we try to fulfill them.
We will learn to celebrate the smaller points of progress along the way; we will build muscles for expecting, managing, and learning from failure. We won’t rein in our ambition for what we can collectively do to address social ills and brokenness, but our ambition will remain rightly matched with our capacity. In the long run, this will actually greatly increase our organizations’ and our societies’ capacity for real and lasting change.
When we use storytelling to empower and dignify those we serve, we give them ways to celebrate small but real progress with us, setting both them and us free from the anxiety of needing to impress outsiders with a “success story” that we know is only partially true.
Nonprofits can become known as the greatest truth-tellers. We have a front-row seat to the most broken and the most beautiful parts of human experience. No inflation of that story is necessary. There is both human and God-inspired drama in this work, and if we can commit to being truthful to everyone around us about what we see and experience, we will open the doors for them to journey through the challenges to see the good, the true, and the beautiful.