Stories in philanthropy

It’s how you show up: The power of authentic storytelling

Great storytelling requires that you walk the talk. A recent global gathering of non-profit leaders and storytellers in San Francisco not only showcased best-practice storytelling for social change, it also provided a powerful, real-time case study of rhetoric matched by action.

Nicole Richards, November 2018

Recently I had the good fortune to participate in a global gathering of foundation and non-profit leaders and storytellers at ComNet18. More than 850 delegates from as far afield as Brazil, Kenya, Israel, Australia (shout out to my compatriot, Suzanne Doig from Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation) and North America came together to share their experiences and learn from each other.

The conference program was exceptionally good, but even better was the real-time masterclass in issues management that began before Day One of the program kicked off.

A strike by the Hotel Workers Union had begun days earlier at the intended conference venue. Protesting workers had created a picket line at the entrances to the hotel, with their calls for fair pay hoisted on placards and echoing through bullhorns.

The tiny ComNet team responded swiftly with empathy and integrity, managing to deliver a venue contingency plan at the eleventh hour, rather than asking speakers and delegates to cross a picket line. The organisers made a financial contribution to support the protesting hotel workers and gave a statement of solidarity.

The 11th hour venue change came at a significant cost to the Network, with estimates as high as US $300,000.

Befitting the Communication Network's motto: “Communications for good”, the ethical stance was felt in all aspects of the conference’s communication which kept delegates meticulously up to date and apprised of their options.

In a note of gratitude to delegates post-conference, the Network’s CEO, Sean Gibbons, explained: “I want to be clear that in changing venues, we simply made the only choice that was the right choice, and that in and of itself does not warrant a pat on the back.”

“Respecting the dignity of workers who are standing up for themselves (and have gone weeks without a paycheck) was an easy call. While our gathering has ended, their struggle continues.”

The strong sense of community was a true highlight at ComNet18, with presenters and peers generously sharing their knowledge, learnings and experiences. The conference itself got underway with a day of service, optional field trips, pre-conference workshops and a group meet-up ahead of the opening night dinner.

While the highlights were many, here are four key take aways storytellers everywhere would do well to heed:


1. The future is diverse and inclusive.

Opening keynote speaker, writer, actor and activist, Lena Waithe, drew from her own lived experience and spoke plainly about the turning tide in the US which has opened up new opportunities for women and people of colour who haven’t historically held the mic.

“A microphone is more powerful than a grenade,” Waithe told the crowd. “All experiences are valid – they are a reflection of our truth.”

And this gem: “True change happens when someone is empowered to tell their own story.”

Inclusiveness was more than just a pronounced theme across the conference program and within individual sessions – it was a given.

No one in the business of communications for good can afford to overlook diversity - its absence will be noticed, and it will be called out.


2. It’s about how you show up.

In a time of increasing scrutiny and growing expectations about transparency, how our communities experience us determines not just our present success, but our future sustainability.

A fascinating, warts-and-all case study from the Colorado Health Foundation (CHF), highlighted the importance of consistent actions that stem back to an organisation’s values. The presenters emphasised that while it’s one thing to espouse diversity and equity from an aspirational point of view, it’s quite another to commit to reflecting that in the composition of the organisation’s own staff. CHF’s extraordinary storytelling journey led the organisation to shake up its recruitment policies to favour ‘world view’ experience over educational qualifications.

Listening, humility and open dialogue in safe spaces are key.


3. Narrative change takes time (and resources).

Planned Parenthood’s recently departed President, Cecile Richards, shared her hard-won experience in narrative change and cautioned communicators to avoid binary labels and a “go to your corners” mentality when talking about tough social issues. To fall into that trap, she warned, means you “talk past millions of people.”

Richards emphasised that narrative change takes time and resources. And a lot more of the former than you’d care to think.

“It’s only when you’re thoroughly sick of saying it that it will start to resonate with others,” she said.

But, the payoff, as Richards noted, is significant: “The only thing people remember is stories.”


4. The way we frame our stories matters.

Trabian Shorters from BMe Community presented one of the most valuable breakout sessions of the conference with his exploration of asset framing.

“We’re hard-wired to see what we’re looking for,” he explained, noting that science has proven that we are incapable of making unbiased choices and that our brain will disregard facts that “don’t fit the narrative.”

The danger here is that once our minds have a familiar language/narrative, we will instantly register it and read it in a certain way. “Literally every story we tell has a moral to it,” Shorters explained.

The moral of Shorters’ presentation is that the way we define people and the communities philanthropy purports to serve is often in terms that are the least empowering. “To define someone by their challenge is the definition of stigmatisation,” he said, using the example of ‘at-risk youth’ which translates by association to ‘trouble’.

“Narrative, not facts are the source of our judgement,” Freud said and Shorters implored storytellers to reach for an asset frame that recognises that all people have aspirations rather than falling back upon deficit frames.


Stories matter more than ever, especially in the field of social change. And those stories are even more powerful when backed by authentic action.


Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia



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Photos by Charlotte Fiorito

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