Collecting Stories

“The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions.” – Michael Margolis

Personal stories can be powerful tools for advocacy. They help encourage understanding, build bridges, and advance a cause.  Curated correctly, stories can be used to spread the word about a nonprofits services and impact.

Everyone has a story to tell, but collecting these stories can be a challenge, especially if not approached systematically.  Some stories are hard to tell, and others come to us in fragments. A solid narrative may include pieces from multiple contributors, each expressing their unique experience as part of a larger community.

The following are some suggestions for developing a system to collect stories for use in narratives and testimonials.  (Note: This article does not get into privacy and HIPPA concerns.)

  • Consider how you will present and share these stories before you collect them. Knowing the purpose and form in advance will help assure that you have all the information you need. (also consider what legal and ethical barriers may impact your use of a person’s story)
  • Avoid a purely passive approach and don’t wait for people to tell you their stories. Include an “exit interview” as part of your process. Use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or other social media platforms to encourage followers to share their experiences with your organization. Keep a box in your lobby or waiting room and ask people to write their story as they wait.
  • Develop a set of standard questions that elicit stories. Using the same language when asking people for stories allows you to “roll up” and summarize multiple examples in a more valid manner.
  • Consider asking a random sample of clients served during a specific time period (e.g., everyone who entered your program in the last three months). This approach may allow you to make a broader statement about the frequency of certain types of outcomes. This approach can be more persuasive than relying solely on self-generated narratives, which can be criticized for representing only those few people who felt so strongly that they chose to make the effort to contact you.
  • Create a central data management system or repository where stories are cataloged and kept. This can help you find and summarize a large number of narratives easily. You can create a simple structure of files and sub files in a computer database. Word clouds and other software can help you quickly identify major themes and trends.
  • Get in the habit of documenting all stories or examples that come to your attention. For example, if an informal phone call includes a brief example of an impact you had on someone’s life, write a brief note and put it into your database or file for future reference. You could even develop a one-page template that can be filled out quickly to facilitate the process.

Understanding when and how to use stories as part of your overall marketing, communications, or fundraising plan is just one of the ways ESC can help you to advance your mission.