How organizations are adopting the storytelling method to their local context

I am frequently asked for specific examples of how an organization can adopt the storytelling method to its specific programs. Here are case studies from my recent visits to UK-based organizations that are on the verge of implementing listening projects to evaluate their programs.

Case #1

For decades this organization has sought to bring together peoples and foster cultural understanding. The impact of their programs focuses on bridging social gaps, exposing people to different cultures, and changing attitudes and perceptions about the “other.” But instead of using a blunt survey that might ask, “how do you people about the other?” they arrived at this:
Share an experience where you had to work with someone different from yourself. 
This question will add context to the all-purpose story prompting question that we encourage all organizations to use:
Talk about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community.
So if you put them together, respondents will share a “community effort” story with a focus on their personal experience of working with someone different.
Out of this, they hope to gleam insights about the way that attitudes and behaviors are changing. They will ask internal “beneficiary” and external “community” people to both share stories for comparative analysis. They will ask each person to share two stories; one will focus on the difficulty of working with the “other” and the other story will be more open ended, about any meaningful community effort:
Who: They have a network of a dozen “alumni” that they will train as scribes. Then they plan to bring on groups in Syracuse, NY, Los Angeles, Indonesia, and Gaza.

Case #2

This organization helps thousands of teens in the big city. They measure impact as improved self-confidence, educational attainment, and long-term community involvement. Their programs help young people get “back on track” and help them find fulfilling careers. Though they manage dozens of community programs for youth, their storytelling question adds this flavor:
In your community effort story, talk about an event that personally changed you in some way.
They currently use a 24-question “life effectiveness questionnaire” that was validated by an academic expert [pdf]:
Time Management The extent that an individual makes optimum use of time.
Social Competence The degree of personal confidence and self-perceived ability in social interactions.
Achievement Motivation The extent to which the individual is motivated to achieve excellence and put the required effort into action to attain it.
Intellectual Flexibility The extent to which the individual adapts his/her thinking and accommodates new information from changing conditions and different perspectives.
Task Leadership The extent to which the individual leads other people effectively when a task needs to be done and productivity is the primary requirement.
Emotional Control The extent to which the individual maintains emotional control when faced with potentially stressful situations.
Active Initiative The extent to which the individual initiates action in new situations.
Self Confidence The degree of confidence the individual has in his/her abilities and the success of his/her actions
Clearly, the standard approach is rigorous and defensible, because it has been used in over 20 studies, but it isn’t very flexible. It prescribes the factors to be measured and then uses a cumbersome approach to measure things in a not-so-fun way. Our storytelling form will be front and back of a single sheet of paper and takes just a few minutes to complete, with most of that time devoted to a personal narrative.
I’m most excited that in one of their three programs, they will test an approach we’re borrowing from the book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James Pennebaker. This program pairs youth with older volunteers and they work together to revitalize the neighborhood. At regular intervals, these pairs will interview each other in the storytelling/listening project. Later, we will compare these pairs as conversations and look for language mirroring. 
Mirroring is a measure of engagement. In this context, when young and old start to adopt the other’s way of speaking in their stories, we infer that they are building a relationship with some intimacy:
conversation langauge mirroring
Even without this mirroring measure, the broader 2-question approach is more likely to reveal community needs than the narrower life effectiveness questionnaire.

Case #3

This organization works with disabled youth, providing them with opportunities to do something wonderful, like the Make A Wish foundation. After some debate, they settled on adding this context to the storytelling question:
Talk about a childhood experience where you were able to do something you never thought you could have done.

They can use this with four different populations they serve: children, parents, donors (to build empathy), and volunteers/public/schools. This is an exciting aspect because unlike other evaluation frameworks, they gain a deeper understanding of what kind of difference they are making in the life of a disabled child through the many others that are effected by this child’s experience.

“Our impact is much more than mere ‘fun’,” the director said. “Providing the inspiration to achieve more is what our events are all about.”

To that end, they are excited that one of the benchmarking follow-up questions in our design is:

“What would have made a difference in this story?”

That allows them to learn how to expand and refine their programs in an open-ended way. Asking this question of four groups will refine their messaging and grant writing, as well as improve their programs and build relationships with the volunteer network they will need to sustain this listening project.

Case #4

This organization will bring storytelling to the 30 schools where they do life skills training. They define success in much the same way Case #2 does. They want to use the open-ended storytelling question to look at how youth define the soft skills they receive, as well as build up an evidence base of the needs that these children have.

They expect it will be very difficult to get children to participate. I suggested that they engage teachers by offering to share the learning that emerges from stories with them. Teachers would probably like to know what their students think about, and this storytelling project offers them a lens into that. They may also explore a young-old mentoring program with the conversation mirroring approach.

Case #5

This organization runs a network of business startup incubators around the world. And while they would like to eventually find a common framework for measuring the impact everywhere, they planned to start with the local hubs.

They plan to ask business leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs to share two stories. One will be about “any community effort” they know/care about, and the other is their own community effort:

Talk about your journey of trying to start a business.
Through this journey narrative, they hope to see what elements define success and failure in an open-ended way. Perhaps their first 100 stories won’t reveal much, but they will have a benchmark over 1250 stories from East Africa about people trying to start a business there. As they grow their narrative collection, they’ll also be forced to build up relationships with people outside their narrow pool of incubator companies. As all of these companies are based on delivering some social benefit to society, the broader “community effort” stories will necessarily be a useful business intelligence database for future aspiring entrepreneurs to mine for ideas.
They were worried they wouldn’t find volunteers who wanted to interview these entrepreneurs. The next day I heard the friend I was staying with complain that no clubs offered him a way to meet like-minded people who are trying to start their own business. My friend tried starting three businesses in Kenya over the years, so I connected him with this organization and suggested they advertise a “meet up” to find more of these kinds of people.
To in effect, the evaluation scheme forces the organization to build up relationships with the community. That is what should be happening – evaluation improves design.

Case #6

This organization helps a half million volunteers find places to work. They too decided to pilot this storytelling with older volunteers. They use volunteering to improve life quality for the elderly and reduce social isolation. They added this context to the storytelling prompt:

Talk about an event that happened long ago and how that affects your life today.

By mining these narratives for emotion words they can quantify reduced social isolation. Isolated people use pronouns and articles differently than highly socialized people. By collecting stories monthly, they can plot the “journey” and look for trends across their volunteers, regardless of what else is talked about.

Topically, these stories will reveal life-transformation events that can be useful for designing future programs.

“And the requirement that we drop off and pick up story forms monthly will give our project managers an excuse to get out and visit these places,” the head person said happily.

They also have hundreds of narratives that they plan to import into our system and explore for more meaning.

One data system with many frameworks

I believe this is a real step forward in fixing our approach to impact evaluation. Instead of 6 organizations with 6 different ways to measure their “impact” we have 6 approaches that share a common back-end data collection system. Each of these organizations must collect as many open-ended narratives as they will of the more constrained questions outlined here.

They will have benchmarking. Even among the constrained questions, we see that there are some likely clusters for comparison:

storytelling context map

That is the beginning of a storytelling context map. With just five organizations, we see that three will likely have some overlap with each other’s themes, and the remaining two have reasonable overlap with similar stories from our existing collection of 57,000.

As dozens of organizations try this out, we may find that evaluation frameworks emerge from the choices that individual organizations make as they take their specific objectives up to a higher level of abstraction. The essential trick is to flip the design by not asking for exactly what you want to know, but to ask communities to react thoughtfully to the core elements of what define our struggles to be more human to each other.

Already proven to work: From Gay Rights to Marriage Equality

Today I attended a talk at NTEN titled “How RED changed everything [for marriage equality]“. For a generation, the gay rights movement lost every ballot referendum that they poured money into fighting. After 30 straight losses, they decided that their messaging wasn’t working. (Yes, 0:30 seems obvious in retrospect, but the nonprofit/advocacy world is very afraid to admit failure). They hired a media company and started focus grouping with straight people who opposed gay marriage.

They eventually got to the heart of the matter:

Tell us why you got married?

Straight people described how they fell in love. But when these people talked about gay marriage, they perceived the issue to be exactly what decades of pro-gay messaging had told them: They thought gay people wanted to be married for the legal benefits, or for tax breaks, or to prove that their lifestyle was acceptable because the government condoned it.

The movement took a hard look at their own messages. They started featuring actual gay people in their ads (instead of judges and legal experts). They told stories. The focused on families and love. And they flipped the public from being 60% opposed to 60% in support in just 5 years. I’m going to take this approach to my local church, which is trying to do the same for voter suppression in North Carolina this year.

This is an example of the power of storytelling. When the prompting question is broad enough to allow surprises to emerge, an idea that begins as “gay rights” becomes a story of “marriage equality.” Reframing an idea starts by asking the people whose mindset and behavior you want to change to speak openly about it. As much as possible, our job is to is to listen.

marriage equality emergence

Follow this thread: Examples of story analysis

Part of blog series on methodology.

6 thoughts on “How organizations are adopting the storytelling method to their local context

  1. This is a great analysis Marc, Please keep on the good work of showing case to the world that story telling can change communities and lead to better service delivery. I am so happy about this kind of analysis.

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