True narratives are rare in the nonprofit world

Lately everybody has been talking about speaking more through “story” and less through “reports.” Google search confirms this recent trend:


But before the bandwagon leaves, I think it is important to point out that for all this talk, stories and narratives are still quite rare. It makes me wonder what people are really saying in words, and whether we know how to tell stories like we think we do.


The evidence

This week I wrote an algorithm that scans huge amounts of text for actual narratives buried within – the story under the headlines. The rules about what defines a “narrative” from other writing aren’t super sophisticated. It needs to have a consistent story point of view, such as first-person-singular. It needs to be mostly letters and not symbols, and must be long enough. And it needs to contains at least some words that narratives often contain. Some mix of emotional words, time-space relationship chronology words, reflection words and so forth is enough to trigger a match for my algorithm.

By just imposing these basic restrictions (and allowing a little fuzziness in the ‘consistent point of view’ rule) to my test collections reveals that true narratives are very rare in the nonprofit world. Despite all this talk about ‘story’ being a great marketing tactic, 99 and a 1/2 percent of reports don’t pass the test. And when citizens get to talk about their needs in a story, over 99 percent focus on telling people what they need without showing others the why through stories.

Results of the filter:

  • Only 13 of first 10,000 stories in the collection qualify as strict narratives (0.13%).
  • Only 3 of the 641 GlobalGiving project reports from 2014 that received donations qualify (0.46%).
  • Only 144 of all 29,908 project reports qualify (0.48%).

So it seems that this kind of narrative is not only rare, but also has not measurable effect on whether people donate money after reading it. The percent of reports that have a narrative within it are the same for both the group that raised money and the group that didn’t (0.46% vs 048%).

What I really want to use this for is to find case studies that exist on the web, pull them down, and build a new body of knowledge about what nonprofits have talked about over the years. The filter allows me to change this form an ‘opt-in’ process to an automatic one. In the future, if you wrote a report and published it anywhere, regardless of whether you promoted it, my computer will find it and add it to the collection.

Examples of what the filter found:

From a project report: (POV: third person singular)

“Due to her socio- economic Minaz had to quit studies but due to her interest in computer she joined the course her family was not happy with her decision, her father told her that doing a computer course wont give you a job then what is the use of learning it? But she was determined to learn the course. One day she went to a nearby balghar(preschool) where she met  women development coordinator Zaheeda Shaikh , she asked her about her education and family background. Looking at her enthusiasm and determination Zaheeda offered her a computer teacher’s post at her center.”

From storytelling collection: (POV: first person plural)

“In March last year a woman told us from Bomi county how she was forcibly initiated into FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and had come to us seeking redress in this case involving two women who got her forcibly initiated into. We (West Point Women for Health and Development Organization) embraced her and decided we will help her by taking up the case of this sister because this was first of a kind in Liberia where a woman was willing to speak out on FGM. The WPW took the woman to hospital along with her twins who are a boy and a girl, when the woman came to us along with her children we make sure they seek medical attention because at the time, we found them to be in a deplorable condition and needed immediate medical attention. We also make sure we got a medical document indicating that she indeed underwent the process of FGM.”

Project report with donations: (POV: first person plural)

“The meals at the soup kitchen are still being prepared by our kind and caring Mongolian lady cook and the meals that she serves makes that statement and in the voiced opinion of our beneficiaries as well. We have had five major medical outreach programs with a team of doctors and nurses seeing 35-40 patients from amongst our beneficiaries and doing very thorough detailed checkups for them. We have also gone through the heavy expense of digging up our pipes from the well to kitchen, as our water pipes froze during the winter months and we had carry our water from the well to the kitchen during the winter freeze.”

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