How Foundations Can Use Storytelling to Effect Change

October 11, 2019 Peter Panepento

If you spend any time working with foundations, you’ll notice a central thread in the stories told by their leaders, in the content posted to their websites, and in the information they share with the news media.

That thread is money.

Most foundation stories start and end with money. This is true whether the story comes from a private foundation, family foundation, community foundation, or healthcare conversion.

Much of what they talk about centers on grants made, assets held, and gifts received.

While that money is often being used to make our communities more equitable, help cure diseases and provide health care to the sick, feed the hungry, and educate our children, too often the focus on dollar signs and big numbers often dehumanizes their work and makes them seem inaccessible.

That’s a shame.

Money is, of course, an important part of what foundations do. And foundations should be transparent about their finances and their grantmaking.

But money shouldn’t be the only story – or even the primary story – foundations tell.

Foundations, after all, don’t merely exist to give money away. They’re in business to lead change and solve problems. And it takes much more than money to change the world.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Jim Joseph, the former president of the Council on Foundations and one of the leading thinkers in our field, talk about the fact that foundations have five forms of capital that they can use to get things done. Of those five, only one relates to the money they give away.

The other forms of capital outlined by Joseph – social, intellectual, moral, and reputational – relate to the power foundations have to share knowledge, bring people together, and inspire other institutions and individuals to take action.

If foundations neglect their responsibility to make full use of these other forms of capital, it doesn’t really matter how much money they have or how much they give to help those in need. If they cannot enlist willing partners and inspire others to take action, they simply do not have enough money to make a substantial, long-term difference.

To improve the narrative – and to affect more meaningful changes – foundations must instead rethink the way they tell their stories.

Rather than focusing on the money they give away and the assets they hold, foundations should take every opportunity to talk about what they stand for, highlight what they are working to accomplish, and spotlight the people and communities that are at the center of their work.

Learn more in the free Blackbaud Foundation Solutions webinar, “Tell Your Foundation’s Impact Story.” Watch now.

But to really get it right, foundations must also take deliberate steps to involve these communities and people in actually shaping the story itself.

Here are five steps you can take to make that happen with your storytelling:

1. Identify your most important audiences

The most effective communications aren’t about the person telling the story. Instead, the most powerful stories are those that speak directly to the person who is hearing that story.

Too often, foundations make themselves the hero – or they tell stories with the aim of satisfying their board members or founders.

A more effective path is to focus on the change your foundation wants to make – and then figure out who you need as partners to help you make that change. Then, rather than focusing your storytelling on your foundation, you can focus it on those potential partners.

2. Remove the jargon

Every industry has its own language.

While such language is helpful when talking among peers, I often cringe when I see foundation jargon making its way into annual reports, news releases, and blog posts.

Why?

Because it creates a barrier between the foundation and the people it wants to connect with. When you use insider language and complicated words, you create barriers. These barriers both make it difficult for people to understand your message and send a signal that your message isn’t really for them.

3. Spotlight grantees and the people they help

Show, don’t tell. It’s the most basic rule of storytelling – and it’s something we cannot forget when we’re sharing stories about our work.

Foundations that are looking to make progress on important issues are more likely to bring people along for the ride if they focus their storytelling on the individuals they’re helping and the organizations they’re supporting rather than on grantmaking. The real work is being done on the ground – you’re just there to help support it.

4. Be genuine in enlisting partners

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg offers a great example for how to approach changemaking.

Rather than thinking its money and expertise will be enough to advance health equity in its community, the foundation has decided that it needs to enlist its entire community.

To do that, it’s creating a Center for Health Equity, a physical place where the community is invited to work together to solve some of the community’s biggest challenges.

And its storytelling around the center – right down to its calls to action – is all about making the community feel as though it is an equal partner in the process. If you’re truly working to invite others to join you in your work, your storytelling has to reflect your values.

5. Listen

When we think about storytelling, we think about talking. But our ability to listen is also a key part of that story. When we show others that we’re hearing them – and are actively using what they’re telling us to guide what we do – we are sending an important message.

The Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation recently offered a master class in listening when members of its community reacted to the job title of a new person who had been hired to work in that community. Rather than bristling at the feedback, the foundation instead involved the community in identifying a better title.

This simple act told a much more important story than any annual report or press release.

And it shows – in a very real way – that our power extends far beyond our money.

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