Why a strong narrative matters to a non-profit’s success
A strong narrative is a unifying message, a rally call that helps your staff, volunteers, donors, clients, and potential new friends understand what you do, why, and how you do it. A persuasive narrative draws people into the cause, and provides clarity of your mission. It creates a shared sense of purpose for all your community members.
Many non-profit organizations undermine their causes by focusing too intently on the day-to-day work that they neglect to tell the story of what they do. It’s through crafting and delivering an informative and inspiring narrative that makes people say “I want to be part of that.” This is critical to organizational success. As the organization’s chief storyteller, the CEO should be in charge of the message and the way it is shared.
Unfortunately, many non-profits are so thinly managed and resourced that creating a narrative is always the job we’ll get to later, when the real work is done. Often the people good at doing the hard (and necessary) work aren’t the ones who are good at talking about it. The problem with not telling your own stories is that you are vulnerable to those who will: the traditional (mainstream) and nontraditional (social) media you’re reaching out to and consume every day; politicians who can ride resentment and distrust to power; or ideologues who want a different world.
A strong narrative explains why your work is of consequence, how it is making lives and communities better. It is mission-based and optimistic, and it describes the problem you are trying to solve without assigning blame for why the problem exists in the first place.
Don’t be tempted to use it as a way to tell people everything you know. It should differentiate you without getting too complicated. An effective narrative is compelling while still being accessible in everyday language. A person who has just heard it should be able to turn around and tell someone else.
When non-profit leaders don’t take the time to tell the story of their organization’s work and contribute to this narrative, they run the risk of having it done for them. As a result, the work may be misrepresented, undervalued, or maligned. Your priority is to do good work, but it’s also your job to be seen to be doing good work. Like anything that is valued, you need to plan for it, budget for it, staff it, and execute it. If it isn’t in your budget, it won’t get done.
Need help to get started?
- In her Five Good Ideas about impactful communication on a shoestring budget, Sevaun Palvetzian (CEO of CivicAction) talks about how non-profit leaders can communicate effectively with stakeholders and not break the bank.
- In his Five Good Ideas session, Robert Steiner, Director of the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Global Journalism, talks about how non-profits can benefit from the media revolution and create new collaborations with the media.
- In the blog post, A journalist’s instinct – making social policy newsworthy, Richard Matern (Director of Research at Food Banks Canada) writes about how non-profits would benefit from thinking like journalists; it would help to inform public dialogue and enable a wider, more informed discussion.