How Leaders Can Use Stories to Help Their Team Stay on Mission
In the mundane minutiae of our workday, it can be all too easy for us to lose sight of the values that matter most to our nonprofit—the values that inspired us to take this job in the first place. The good news is, storytelling is here to help. Stories are powerful tools when it comes to reorienting yourself and others to the values that matter to your nonprofit.
How to Tell Stories That Reorient Others to Your Core Values
Many types of stories can shift the focus back to your mission. Although there might be hundreds of stories, the ones that touch the most universal human experiences are the Five Basic Plots.
- The Origin Story (or sometimes known as the founder’s story) is perhaps the most natural story for nonprofit leaders to tell. Keep in mind that though you and your team might know the Origin Story forward and backward, but your volunteers, new board members and prospective donors might not. It’s important to make sure that the plot of your story connects directly with your core values. For example, is this clear on the “About” page of your website so that current and potential employees and volunteers can see it? Do all employees know why the founder started the organization? The Origin Story doesn’t need to confine itself to founders. It can also describe the circumstances from which the nonprofits were founded. For example, political activism is currently on the rise from all spectrum of beliefs. What is it particularly about the current environment that might give birth to a new organization? The Origin Story tells how the organization started, but there are also many important stories about how that initial mission continues to thrive today.
- Employee or volunteer stories. These illustrate how to accomplish the mission. They can describe a team member’s accomplishment or a way the team member uses to stay on mission—or it can simply illustrate a steady dedication to their vocation. But here’s the key—be sure to relate the main point of the stories back to the original intent of the founders or the organization.
- But steer clear of favoritism! Of course, you don’t want to name the same person every time so alternate who you publically acknowledge and close with something like, “And it’s not just Eduardo. I’ve seen Vhari, Bob, Carmella and Li do the exact same thing. This makes me confident that there are many others who are just as encouraging to clients as they are. I would love to share their stories too, so please tell me when you notice this among your colleagues!”
- Client stories. These are common among nonprofits, but does your team always know that you’re telling the story because the client’s success connects with your nonprofit’s values? The takeaway message should always be clear: this is why we do what we do; this is why our mission matters.
- Stories about other organizations are also powerful when they share your mission or carry out their own mission particularly well. With a generous spirit, look at the others on the playing field. How can your team learn from their stories?
How to Make Stories Like These Part of the Everyday Work
Okay, so far so good. You’ve got stories about people all throughout your organization, and even some from outside your organization. But do you reserve these stories for special occasions? Nope! Weave them into the fabric of your workplace.
Start your next meeting with a three-minute story. Say your nonprofit is one like Pen + Napkin that furnishes and decorates homes for people moving from homeless shelters into a new home. You could say something like:
“Hey, before we get started, I just wanted to let you know that a little boy in El Cajon is excited to do his homework because of you. I heard from Natalie that when a mom and her family moved into their new home, her son Victor’s jaw dropped when he saw the dinosaur stencils on his bedroom walls. Now, every day after school, he races to the desk you decked out with dinosaur decals—and sits there happily doing all of his homework. This is why we do what we do. We really are ‘installing hope.’ Natalie now has hope that Victor will succeed in school and have the opportunities that a solid education provides.”
Use Slack, a text or a quick email to connect your external messaging with your internal goals. When we see our clients succeed, we want to shout it from the rooftops. But think about that employee who spends a chunk of her day deciphering people’s handwriting as she adds email addresses into MailChimp—does she know that the client’s success is also her success? The next time your nonprofit shares a client story on social media, your Web site or in a letter to donors, take a minute to reflect on how your team made it possible and how it aligns with your mission. Then, send your team an acknowledgment.
Incorporate your employees’ and volunteers’ stories into your trainings—and let them know you’re doing it. Since their stories illustrate how to accomplish the mission, what better way to liven up your training materials than using their stories as examples?
Tell stories informally. Any time you’re having a conversation with someone on your team, that’s a chance to tell brief, memorable stories and mention how they connect with your mission.
Not a Non-profit Leader (Yet)? You can still use stories to realign yourself and others with your organization’s mission by thinking about:
- How the organization started—and how its start affects your everyday work.
- What colleagues do well, how their work or attitudes embody the mission, how this can inspire you to do the same, and how you can make them aware of what their work means to you.
- Client successes that are especially meaningful to you. Take time to reflect on why they matter to you. Share your thoughts in formal settings or in casual conversation.
- How other organizations carry out their mission. Sometimes looking away from the familiar is what it takes to say, “Ah! We do that too! That’s why we’re here!”
Stories are the “value compass” for every person in your nonprofit. They’re pointing the way forward on the path toward an accomplished mission.
Esther Choy is founder and president of Leadership Story Lab, where she coaches managers in storytelling techniques. Esther’s new book, Let the Story Do the Work (forthcoming in July), covers ways nonprofits can share stories about the impact they are making. Additionally, Esther is currently teaching in the executive education programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.