The Art of Storytelling: Crafting your Nonprofit Narrative

Prospective clients come to me with an idea of what they want to accomplish with our time together. In a perfect scenario, we’d have all the time in the world and resources would be boundless (though I guess they would not need me!).

 

I’ve found, though, that my first job—before I can get to the work they think they want me to do—is to investigate their STORY.

 

Let me explain. Fundraising gets a bad rap because when it’s “hard” or unknown or not timed right, it can feel like “begging people for money.” This becomes especially true for staffers of  arts and culture organizations who feel like their work isn’t “making a difference” in the way that a soup kitchen or Planned Parenthood or similar places do..

 

When we think this way, it comes from an external driver of our narrative story like “hunger” or “ïnsufficient access to birth control”;someone else, some political climate has presented us with an antagonist and then we say the nonprofit and the work that they do is the solution. To address the needs of the hungry, ABC soup kitchen exists. And so on.

 

For culture, we don’t necessarily have as explicit an antagonist. The external drivers of our narratives continue to posit that culture/art is a luxury and that there is no real villain or problem to be solved through art. Sometimes we make the connections more loudly than others. Without telling the right story, but in an effort to fit into the matrix set up that “justifies” asking for charitable contributions, we’ll make an easy reach, say our work is about “social justice,” or use the funders’ language to show an understanding and possible best-fit match for investment.

 

When we do that, we— culture workers—lose the agency of our own story to ignite collaborators to join us in our mission. We are telling them the story, “the solution’’, we think they want to hear. For those organizations who reach an impasse and whose methodologies of raising funds has stalled while expenses have grown, we turn to the model of protagonist vs. antagonist. Too often we move to a model of institutional storytelling that is an avoidable scenario: culture’s villain becomes “cash flow,” and we ask donors to be the solution and save us by making a gift. The story becomes something that is not at all focused on the mission of the organization but on the organization’s conflict with its inability to tell its story at the right time, to the right people, in a way that invoices co-conspirators at every stage of the journey.

 

Those organizations have lost the ability to tell the truth of their story. Cash flow difficulty is certainly a truth, especially in what we understand to be a disinvested and underfunded field for organizations of color. I don’t want to argue that. But cash flow is NOT the whole truth of the organization and the work it’s up to.

 

We need to work better to frame our story in the truth, the values, the services of our institutions. A truth that is rooted in great vision will lead the way for an exceptional story to highlight your much-needed programs, community, and art-and-culture-centered work.

 

Let’s work together! Red Olive’s Classroom will launch our first course next month, and we want you—or someone you think needs to work on their story—to be there!

On July 8 & 9 from 7PM – 9PM I want to gather virtually with folks who want to better tell the truth and vision of their organizations in order to invite more donors, co-conspirators, and collaborators on this journey to funding the organizations that need to exist for the present and the future.

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