Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Water Deep: Growing Your Nonprofit Through Internal Storytelling Techniques

Your nonprofit organization will grow both the financial bottom line and staff satisfaction when you incorporate storytelling into your organization's internal communications.You need to water deeply.

As a leader of a nonprofit organization, it might be easy for individual staff and volunteers to be focused just on those who receive the services of the organization. However, does your group remember to talk to each other about your own work? Nonprofit storytelling is not just for the outside customers, it is for our very own staff members.

Stories can inspire your staff, improve staff retention and grow job satisfaction. You will see greater nonprofit fundraising. In turn, a happy organization generates deeper satisfaction among clients and benefactors.

Learn to use the power of nonprofit storytelling in your business communications with these five tips:

1. Leaders should know and speak the stories of everyday successes.

Do your nonprofit's leaders only speak to everyone when there is a problem? Stories are everywhere in an organization and they can be easy to find. I teach several methods for story gathering, but whatever method you choose to use, do something to solicit and find the stories of your company. When using storytelling for nonprofit organizations, the leaders must be the first to demonstrate this communication technique and they should seek to do so for every level of staff.

2. At least once a calendar quarter, have a single department share in-depth stories about their role in the organization.

Are your staff meetings limited to cursory sharing of agendas?

My wife is a gardener. Among other things, I have learned from her is that plants not only need the surface watering on a regular basis, but that they benefit from a "deep" watering occasionally. Much like these plants, your company needs to be "deep" in sharing their stories.
I have been on staff for many nonprofits. In our busyness, our staff meetings were reduced to around-the-table updating, doing not much more than checking in. To grow your staff cohesion, make a monthly gathering where one department shares both the success and challenge stories. As the deep watering that my gardener wife does for her trees, let these monthly or quarterly gatherings feed the roots of the entire organization.

3. Be sure volunteer training includes stories from other volunteers.

Do you assume your volunteers (or those seeking nonprofit jobs) are present because they really understand your group? As a nonprofit leader, I have seen how quickly some volunteers can burn out, especially in jobs requiring a great deal of face-to-face interaction. It is easy to assume that volunteers completely understand your mission statement. Of course, that is false. When your volunteers know the joys, challenges and reasonable expectations of your group, they will be more inspired to stay longer with your group. Mixing in a generous portion of stories (fun and serious) to your training will have long-term benefits.

4. Invite, rather than require, staff to create stories of the organization.

Mandatory story sharing results in low quality stories. Gathering stories is a natural process but sometimes your staff needs to be reminded how to do so. Rather than mandate to a group, teach them skills. Your stories will be much more genuine as they grow out of desire to share and not a requirement to meet a quota.

5. Never be afraid of negative stories.

I have found that negative stories (complaints) are a more effective gauge of staff satisfaction or job issues than any comment box will ever be.

In any organization there will be moments of success and sometimes challenge. Learn to listen carefully to all stories you hear. What are the trends and patterns? Before a staff issue becomes a major problem, it first appears as a few whispers. Are you listening to these stories? In thinking about your own work history, what problems might have been avoided if management had been carefully listening rather than defending or suppressing issues?

Strive to implement these "internal customer" tips for the health of your nonprofit group.

Thinking of starting a nonprofit organization? Make these steps an integral part of your initial plans.

K. Sean Buvala is a national leader in the communication skill of storytelling for business. An award-winning veteran of nearly three decades in storytelling, he uses his experience in the non-profit industry to help you grow your bottom line and increase staff satisfaction. Learn more at  For daily tips, follow him at Twitter @storyteller .

The official blog for K. Sean Buvala, storyteller and storytelling coach.

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