Developing a Storytelling Culture

Copyright: Bigstock/SwanOmurphy. Used with permission.

Copyright: Bigstock/SwanOmurphy. Used with permission.

When I first went to work as the Executive Director at the Children's Center for Hope & Healing, a counseling center in Northeast Georgia, I longed for the staff I worked with to tell me clients stories. I knew I needed to be able to share our clients' stories with donors and volunteers to inspire giving and volunteerism and, given that the organization was in dire financial straights when I began working for it, being able to motivate people to give was essential, but I just couldn't—at least not initially—get the staff to share stories about the clients.  

With the Children's Center, this staff reluctance was part of a larger issue at the time of not having a Culture of Philanthropy. The organization had depended for years on federal and state dollars for funding. It wasn't accustomed to having to tell its story to anyone in the community. It just didn't have a history (at least not a recent one) of having done that. 

The process of getting staff to share stories was a slow one. It didn't happen over night. It took time. There were several factors at play:

  1. Trust building: All the front-line staff who worked with clients at the Children's Center were therapists. They were strongly protective—as they should have been—of their clients. Like all good therapists, they had been trained not to disclose what had happened in therapeutic sessions outside of the therapeutic session. It took them time to get to know me and to understand what I was going to do with the information, to learn what information I needed and could be trusted with, to be confident that it was okay to share some information with me without me disclosing any identifying information about their clients. They shared small bits of information at first and larger pieces of stories later, after they understood that I didn't need or want to know or reveal anything that would identify the client.  

While therapists might be more protective than some other front-line client care personnel, it's not unusual for the people who are providing direct care, the people who have enjoyed the confidence and trust of clients, or who have seen the vulnerabilities of clients to feel protective of clients and to be reluctant to disclose information. This is actually a great thing and we need to respect it and to exercise caution in breaking these barriers down. 

Try writing some of the first stories you write together. Show the front line caregivers how some details enhance a story, but also show how you are willing to change identifying information (like name, age, or gender) to disguise an identity if an identity needs to be protected and how some details can be omitted from a story so that too much information is not disclosed. Demonstrate to a caregiver that you understand and respect the confines of HIPAA.

Be sure to ask permission before writing about a client unless the client's story will be so de-identified that the client will not be able to recognize himself or herself. Showing the caregiver that you won't write without consent will help you earn the trust of the caregiver. 

 2. Identifying Stories Collectively: One of the biggest reasons I see that staff and volunteers don't share stories is that they simply don't have a nose for a scoop the way that fundraisers do. They don't know what is going to tug at a donor's heart. They haven't been writing for the donors for several years the way that fundraisers have—in fact, many of them haven't been writing for donors ever. They're not used to thinking about donors or communicating with them so they just go about their day without remembering the donors. 

 The issue here is one of offering a new lens or teaching a new habit. It just takes practice. To help this happen, you need to spend sometime with the staff member or volunteer. Whenever something that is story-worthy is said or happens, point it out. "That's it--that's exactly what I was talking about! That would make a great story because..."  You find things to call out, praise, exclaim over.

I also find that group sharing is helpful with this. Gather a group of staff or volunteers together and ask one of them to share his or her story. As one of them shares, others will begin to see what it is shareworthy.

 3. Communication Methods:  Once people trust they can tell you their stories and know what kind of stories you are looking for, the only other thing to make sure is that they have an easy way to get the stories to you. Make sure your contact info is handy. Make sure staff and volunteers all have whatever email address or phone message box you want them to leave messages in so that you don't miss a message. Let them know that if they don't want to write out a long message, just leave their name and you'll call them back.

 The great thing is that once the flow of stories starts, it seems to run pretty freely. If you can help people in your organization to see through a donors' eyes and to be willing to share client stories, you'll find that the stories are endless.