In the nonprofit sector, we’re learning how to address some of society’s biggest challenges. We are attempting to make life better on this planet and in order to do this, we are constantly learning and applying our best ideas. But what if some of the most important, helpful and revolutionary stuff we can learn is within our lived experience? A critical lesson may have already been learned by a colleague or mentor. Knowledge that we’ve gained ourselves may benefit another nonprofit leader down the street or on the other side of the world. Maybe some of the most significant skills we need, we can learn from each other.
But how do we do it? How do we share our own learnings and access others’?
Storytelling can help. Stories can communicate critical information and lessons to others in our sector. When leaders share stories openly, we can often learn together, leverage shared learnings and move the sector forward. Storytelling can help us build greater bonds between and within our sector. This article from Harvard Business Review shares just how much we learn when we use storytelling in our leadership.
Let’s hear more, create more, and learn more from stories. In the nonprofit sector particularly, stories motivate people to participate in change. Without stories, people may not be able to relate to or truly understand the work we do. Without stories, we don’t have champions for our causes. Without stories, it’s just data and facts. And though important, they don’t compel people to act. Sharing stories within the sector and between leaders could generate incredible change and growth by aggregating knowledge, experience and wisdom.
But what if we don’t think we’re good at telling stories?
The good news is, we’re probably already telling stories. All leaders are storytellers because leadership IS storytelling. If we have a great team all rowing the boat in the same direction, then their leader conveyed a story that compelled them to work together to accomplish a common goal. More precisely, leadership is storytelling in action. To get our team working together on that boat means that we shared a collective vision of the future that inspired. And, we can all learn how to be better storytellers. Just like leadership skills, storytelling can be practiced and honed over time. The more we invest in and focus on authentic storytelling, the more comfortable we’ll become.
Though storytelling is universal, it is very personal. Powerful storytelling requires us to be vulnerable because it can push us to expose aspects of our true selves, and our failures. When we tell stories about lessons learned, we uncover mistakes, real barriers and challenges faced. It may feel risky to some. This kind of vulnerability in storytelling can be disorienting because many of us are so used to only sharing impact and outcomes rather than the turbulent route that got us there. But this is also why it is so critical to share more honest stories; we need to clarify the murky waters of nonprofit leadership to create a healthier, more holistic understanding of our sector, our roles and our work. Mistakes are made, and vital discoveries are made as a result; and if we share them, uncover and expose all of the messiness that we all experience at some point (often many, many times) throughout our nonprofit careers, then we can truly achieve greater impact across the sector and beyond. If we commit to sharing more honest stories, we can begin to shift stagnant and sometimes harmful team culture and foster more empathy and understanding throughout our sector.
However, we must be mindful in sharing our stories. Not everyone is ready to share, and we must continue to enable safer spaces and promote consent within our organizations, communities and the sector in order to have more people - leaders and otherwise - feel safer sharing stories. Stories can be traumatic, and they can also require us to expose our deepest insecurities.
We can learn how to face failure from our insecurities. Failure, ultimately, is just the label we apply to the process of trying and learning, or as Mike likes to call it, ‘building the plane while flying it’. We can start to chip away at the stigmatization of ‘failure’ and begin to understand and empathize with it as a learning process. If we focus on celebrating learning rather than scorning so-called failure, we’ll be so much more prepared to tackle the challenges of our world.
When I was at Unity, we trained our artist educators to share their stories in programs to heal, engage and connect with youth. At the end of an out of town program we had a major sponsor performance. We invited youth from high schools we worked with that week to perform and share their story. Several hours before the show, our artists worked with the youth to rehearse their stories of how the arts had an impact on their lives.
In the middle of the show, one of the youth shared their story. This time, however, the youth shared a different story than they had practiced. They shared a traumatic event they had experienced in vivid and extremely explicit detail, for over ten minutes. This happened in front of the staff of one of Unity’s biggest sponsors who had brought their young children to watch. I remember crying backstage. I was petrified for everyone involved. I thought I was watching Unity fall apart in front of my eyes.
It felt like they had finally felt safe to share this and they just needed to let it out. Though this audience was not ready for what was being told. My number one goal was to ensure this young person felt supported and safe. Later, we gave them a ton of support and followed up with their principal for years after to ensure they were safe and supported.
Following the event, we had angry sponsors telling us we had traumatized their young children. We sent personalized apology letters to each employee. I literally felt sick to my stomach. I had never been so sure in my life as I was in that moment that Unity was done. Thankfully nearly everyone was empathetic, and ultimately understood that this was a powerful and important moment for this young person. I will never forget this day. We learned we needed to add new protocol for sharing our stories.
After this, we spent a ton of time and energy on creating safer spaces for youth and artists to share their stories. We created a process to allow our artist educators to share their stories amongst peers in a structured way. We supported and coached artists throughout this to safely and powerfully share their stories. The goal was a process of healing, support and empowerment.
Stories are powerful and can create great opportunities for learning and healing. It is something we believe the sector can benefit from doing more often and with a bit more intention.
At EPIC we care about your leadership, a lot. If you have questions or would like to learn more about how you can connect with EPIC on this topic or other things you're working on to help improve the nonprofit and social impact sector, please connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks, and we look forward to connecting and exchanging!
The EPIC Team
This blog is a collaborative piece by EPIC team members, Michael Prosserman and Tina de los Santos.