Not every story works for every audience. Everyone should have a library of narratives that speak to different groups. If asked, I would answer that all organizations, whether non profit or for profit, should have the following types of stories in their arsenal:
1. Origin story – Why are you here? Very specifically, what happened? What was the “a-ha” moment for your organization’s founding? This kind of story grounds people. Besides, it’s interesting.
President Roosevelt’s story of how he launched the national park program comes to mind. Specifically, the most powerful part of his conservation origins is the story around when he refused to shoot a bear that rather misguided organizers tied to a tree for the President to shoot so he was guaranteed a trophy. The President’s refusal to do so, and subsequent epiphany that everyone should be able to enjoy nature, launched the greatest period of national park development and conservation that we have seen in the 20th century. This story also was the origin of the teddy bear craze as he became known as “Teddy Roosevelt.” What ephipany did your founders or executive leadership have that put you on your current path?
2. Signature story – What is one anecdote that illustrates your mission? What is the story that is unique to your organization? This helps people remember you, not to mention put them on the right path of understanding about who you are and what you stand for.
A story that has stuck with me is one that Ed Clark, founder and head of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, tells around how the Center has educated and impacted people’s everyday behaviors around wildlife. A man met Ed at an event where the conversation turned to how it is “okay” to throw bio-degradable food stuffs out the car window while driving. Ed gently corrected him saying that even an apple core thrown onto the side of the road can entice (and train) wildlife to the come to the roadside, where they are too-often hit by a vehicle. Years later Ed ran into that gentleman again and he said “you know, I haven’t thrown an apple core out the window since I met you.” What is a story that you can claim that may be simple but shows the impact you are making?
3. Participant story – What story can you tell that shows how people interact with you, use your products or services or gained something from being involved with you? What stories could your staff share that show they are “called” to this work? This story helps people see the relevance you have to them.
The Southern Environmental Law Center does this beautifully. Several of their attorneys have been videotaped explaining “why they do what they do.” They also are terrific at capturing testimonial stories from their donors, who talk very specifically about why they contribute to the organization. In particular, they are very good at capturing the childhood memories both SELC’s employees and donors had around some of the special, natural places in the southeast from fishing with their father in the rivers to walking down to the docks to meet the fishermen. It is these memories that not only spur them on to act but also connect them in a very human and real way to their audiences. What story do you have that shows the people you help and the people who work in your organization are “just like me?”