Aligning Storytelling Culture

A Big Hurdle for Large Mission-Driven Organizations

Storytelling is becoming a more important part of nonprofit branding, marketing and communications efforts. But how does a nonprofit or any organization develop a sustainable system for collecting and sharing stories? The topic of "how" is discussed in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article by Julie Dixon - Building a Storytelling Culture. Dixon outlines two essential ingredients to achieve this:

  1. A shift in mindset and appreciation
  2. An investment in capacity

I couldn't agree more with both of these ingredients for storytelling success, but I feel that something is missing. An organization can be committed to telling stories and invest in the capacity to do so, but still not be on the same page about how to execute. I think a third essential ingredient for any organization, especially a large one, is aligning storytelling priorities and processes.

My perspective comes from working for a large public university. The university understands that storytelling is important and there's been an investment in building storytelling capacity across several departments. But I think the reason our storytelling efforts work (and sometimes don't) is how well storytelling priorities and processes are aligned across departments.

Our central marketing department loves the idea of empowering each of us to be a storyteller, but coordinating these efforts is messy. Without the proper storytelling alignment, the whole process can quickly spin out of control. Individual departments begin going in different directions, developing their own stories that don't necessarily align with the University overall.The quality of images, video and copy vary drastically across departments making it hard to focus development efforts. The flow of storytelling content can get bottle-necked if the central marketing department is not prepared for the amount of raw content coming in.When these issues come up, I see the power of our storytelling efforts diluted and, honestly, it make me question why I should spend time contributing to these efforts.

According to Dixon, the goal of any organization interested in sustained storytelling efforts is to have a compelling, vibrant portfolio of stories at everyone's finger tips. The university I work for certainly work ahead of it to achieve this, but I already see leadership and the marketing department empowering employees to participate in the process by communicating priorities and process standards more openly and dedicating time to explaining how each of us fit into the process.

This alignment will likely change how leadership works to shift mindsets toward a storytelling culture and invest in storytelling capacity. This will ultimately help tailor storytelling efforts to the unique dimensions of university departments.

But this is just my narrow view on how storytelling efforts are being implemented. What key ingredients do you see in the storytelling efforts of large organizations?