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by Janet Ervin

On Friday, September 25, our virtual roundtable for nonprofits, What’s Next, again took on nonprofit storytelling with guests Valaida Fullwood and Alicia Bell. Back in July, we talked about the need to ask better questions and the idea that the best stories are built on trust and relationship. This episode built on that discussion by focusing on practical ways that nonprofits can create better narratives.

In this episode, Valaida and Alicia identified four ways that nonprofits often stumble, then provided practical advice and resources that offered alternative ways of nonprofit storytelling. Read on to find the tips and resources they referenced linked below, and download the full episode on demand.

Where we stumble: We take away agency.

In most cases, the storyteller is the power holder – the one shaping the story and sharing it to motivate action in other parts of their constituency. While it is appropriate to interview and write stories, the key is to consider how we approach this task and what we choose to share.

“Consider what it looks like to curate stories,” Alicia suggested. Seeing ourselves as ‘story gatherers’ rather than storytellers can shift the dynamic and take off some of the pressure. It isn’t our job to filter the stories and retell them – but to provide a channel for people to encounter each other through the sharing of their lived experiences.

Tips & Resources:

  • Hire Black and POC photographers, writers and journalists. Make sure your organization’s culture enables their success and that you are open to new and different ways of storytelling.
  • Consider the story medium. Many people find it easier to share their story through audio or video, rather than write or answer interview questions. These mediums are more accessible than ever and offer opportunities for your clients to speak directly to the rest of your constituency.

Where we stumble: We start with ‘secondly.’

This was one of my biggest ‘a-ha’s’ from this session. The idea comes from this Ted Talk by writer Chimamanda Adichie – that we often begin with the problem itself, rather than what led to the problem. “Always consider, what is the machine that made this problem? What is the root of the issue?” Alicia cited advice that had been given to her before: “Ask why something happened, then keep asking it until you get to the reasons behind the problem.”

She named affordable housing as an issue that often gets this treatment in Charlotte. “The current problem is that there is not enough housing at affordable prices,” she said. “But what is the history and the context that made it that way?”

Tips & Resources:

  • Be reflective about the history and the context of an issue.
  • Ask ‘why’ before you repeat information – and ask it several times.
  • Partner with others. These stories are not ours alone to tell and we all benefit from a network of partners. A good example of this is the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative’s affordable housing effort or their approach to COVID-19 coverage.

Where we stumble: We focus on deficit.

Valaida shared that this is one of the biggest storytelling challenges she sees in our community. “So many of our stories are rooted in problems rather than possibility,” she said. “If you can’t envision joy and imagine something different, then you can’t convey it. What does it look like when your work is done?”

When we focus on deficit stories, we are using negative emotional triggers (guilt, pity, shame) to provoke action. This can be effective, but often only temporarily, because those emotions do not lend themselves to building relationships. When we are honest about the challenges, but ground stories in hope and creativity, we find more authentic and human connections and motivate action led by imagination.

Tips & Resources:

  • Refocus on assets instead of deficits.
  • Ask yourself: What does it look like when the work is done? Tell stories rooted in this vision and paint a picture for your audience.
  • Hold the tension of truth and possibility. Be honest about the current challenges, but also honest about the creativity and hope that exists within people.
  • Check out this article by Trabian Shorters, Founder of BMe Community, for another take on focusing on aspirations instead of challenges: ‘You Can’t Lift People Up by Putting Them Down: How to Talk About Tough Issues of Race, Poverty and More.”

Where we stumble: We share a single narrative.

Alicia noted that it can be more challenging to share a multi-dimensional story, commenting that, “multiple stories can feel chaotic, but stereotypes are not the only story.” In a nonprofit context, this challenge can feel amplified because we are often trying to promote action, but there is limited time and space to share a story. We, as a sector, have to remember that for many of our audience members, our narrative is the only encounter they have with a particular issue – so the single story we share becomes the truth they know.

Valaida suggested that organizations stay in relationship with the communities they serve and work to create honest feedback loops. “Move past your expectations and ask questions that create a multi-dimensional story,” she suggested.

Tips & Resources:

  • Consider ways that your clients can share their stories directly with your audience. Video and audio are more comfortable mediums for some people and offer the chance to share directly.
  • Make sure you have relationships that hold you in reflection and accountability.
  • Consider the medium. As we mentioned above, video and audio may be more comfortable mediums for some people. In the episode, Valaida referenced an article that Our State published about Fonta Flora (the name referencing both a former community and a new brewery). It’s a great example of a storyteller honoring both written history and oral traditions.

You can connect with Alicia on Twitter. Her latest project with Free Press is called Media 2070, aimed at reimagining media ecosystems through an in-depth essay and organizing hub designed to gather diverse voices in journalism and steward their stories across various platforms. Learn more here.

Learn more about Valaida on her website or social media. Her current projects include  The Bold Project with the New Generation of African American Philanthropists or her exhibit The Soul of Philanthropy.