Tag Archives: philanthropy

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

Link Love–Happy Valentine’s Day!

So I totally stole the title of this post (the ‘link love’ part), and I can’t even remember from where I stole it, which means that I can’t even give proper credit.

Not very Valentine’s Day-ish of me, hunh?

But there’s a lot to love here, and I want to share it, so the name seems appropriate.

Have a great Valentine’s Day, reading about poverty and policy and technology for social change.

That’s what I’ll be doing. Super romantic, trust me.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers!

Love for everyone!

How would nonprofits fare, on trial?


This post from White Courtesy Telephone described a scene at a philanthropy conference a few years ago, when a jury of the field’s peers ‘put philanthropy on trial’.

Prosecution and defense, both from the philanthropy world, presented evidence on either side of these critical questions:

“Was philanthropy, or was it not, underperforming in its quest to help create social change? Should it, or should it not, be convicted for its lackluster outcomes?”

And 10 out of the 12 audience members chosen to deliberate philanthropy’s fate voted to convict.

The post emphasizes that there was little discussion, afterwards, about the significance of that verdict, or about the evidence that jurors, respectively, found most persuasive, or about the criteria that should be used to determine the relative effectiveness of the field.

And, interestingly, there has never been a retrial.

I would encourage you to read the post; nonprofits and nonprofit advocates certainly have an interest in how philanthropists are debating these questions of impact, and how their perception of their progress in this area may speak to the need for changes in how foundations interact with their nonprofit grantees.

But I am wondering how a similar trial would go for our nonprofit social service sector, itself.

Should we be convicted for failing to make significant progress on some of the most pressing social problems of our day? Or should we be excused, given the increasing pressures put on the sector, and the abdication of government, in particular, regarding its responsibilities for the same?

By what criteria would we be gauged to be ‘succeeding’, or not, in our quest for impact?

Are there parts of our sector that would fare differently than others? Are organizations working in health care, for example, doing better than those combating poverty? Is it even possible to dissect our field this way?

Would certain voices in our sector be more critical than others? Has this role of internal critic fallen mostly to particular voices in the field today, or are some actors just positioned so as to make them more or less concerned about nonprofit performance?

How would you vote, as a juror deciding the fate of our sector? What evidence would you present, as a prosecutor or as the defense?

And how would you feel, as a defendant?

What if we were judged not by other nonprofit actors, but by our most important ‘peers’–the clients whose interactions with our organizations give us our legitimacy?

How would they judge your specific organization and the overall field with which they engage?

What might we learn from such an exercise? What do we stand to lose?

Advocacy roles for philanthropy…and lessons for nonprofits

Recently a foundation colleague and I had an email exchange sparked by this Nonprofit Quarterly article about the role of philanthropy and advocacy in ACA implementation.

It sparked my thinking about the importance of implementation, and, hence, the request for more examples of implementation advocacy stories, from all of you.

There are also some really important points about the more technical pieces of healthcare reform implementation, and the roles for philanthropy in making sure that that legislation has the impact on people’s access to health care and, ultimately, overall health status, that was intended. It’s very worth reading.

But I think that there’s also a larger point about the role of philanthropy in advocacy, and about what nonprofits need to think about regarding the disconnect, often, between the strategies we deliver and the types of change we hope to pursue. Because one of the major criticisms from the article, and the primary point of our online ‘conversation’, was about how much ‘advocacy’ by nonprofits–and how much advocacy support by philanthropy–is really more public education, despite the obvious fact that “politics, not information, plays the decisive role in policy decisions”.

It ties back to the advocacy framework, and the reality that we spend a lot of our time in the community information-generation sphere, when what will be required to get to policy change might be grassroots organizing, or direct lobbying, or even litigation. The article largely pins the blame for that chasm between strategy and outcome on philanthropy’s reluctance to aggressively fund advocacy; one source said that “foundations have a higher sense of the impact of their reports and studies on public policies than is actually warranted”, and this colleague of mine was quick to concur that foundations, in general, can shy away from anything that looks like contentious policy debate.

But I think that nonprofits are often complicit in this, in that we may be no more eager to get into heated policy controversies than the foundations that fund us, or no more equipped to take on the long-term work of base-building, either.

So, while, yes, the foundation conference that this article covers reflected a “bias…toward the capacity of philanthropy to publish objective information even though facts are often less influential than hard-nosed politics”, but I have those same conversations with nonprofit Boards of Directors and staff executives, too.

We want to think that injecting really good information into the policy debate will make all the difference, that facts will get us where we want to go.

We want to live there, because we’re comfortable with those activities, and because that vision of how change happens aligns with our hopes for how public policy should be constructed.

But wishing and hoping doesn’t make it happen, and, in reality, neither do really well-researched fact sheets, either. Not alone.

So, my hope, in healthcare reform implementation and in all other policy issues with implications for people’s well-being, is that nonprofit advocates will get confident and capable of playing in all areas of the advocacy framework, that we’ll cultivate relationships with philanthropists ready to work with us, and that, as a result, we’ll win.

A lot.

How we give

I came across a study that asserts that 65% of all American charitable giving has no research behind it.

In some ways, that’s surprising, right? With all of the talk about accountability and transparency?

It seems like people would want to know where their money is going. Instead, we mostly just give–when we’re moved, when we’re guilty, when we’re connected to those who need the gifts.

And we hope that our gifts will make a difference.

But we don’t really know.

I thought about these data, and about how we give, over the Christmas holiday, when Sam and I sat down to make our end-of-the-year charitable contributions.

Because nonprofits need us to give better. They need us to use our dollars to help them focus on results and support them in reaching for excellence. They need us to give in ways that make sense for their work, instead of just the ways that feel good to us. We share the same aspirations–we and the nonprofits we deem worthy of our support–or we wouldn’t give to them in the first place.

But how we give can make a difference in how likely they are to reach them–how likely we are to get there together.

  • Sam and I give at the end of the year not because there’s a particular need at that time, but, instead, because that’s part of our family’s holiday ritual. It works for us, but we should acknowledge that they might be better served by a different giving pattern.
  • Sam is fairly strategic in his giving choices. He usually has a particular part of the world, or a particular problem he wants to address, that becomes his priority. We don’t just respond to the solicitations we get, and we never give over the phone, because that feels too pressured. I think he fits into the 35% minority, probably, if they studied 6-year-olds.
  • We do some research on the front end, usually including reviewing the organization’s materials around (what I call) their theory of change–how do they talk about why they do what they do, and does that linkage make sense to us? What we lack, for this part, is good information about impact; we have financial data at our fingertips, and even access to efficiency/good governance ratings sometimes, but that’s not the same as really assessing the dent they’re making in the problems that plague us, and I feel that failing.
  • We almost never have ongoing contact with the organizations after our donation. We really should, I know–we’re now part of their constituency, and we should care about what they’re doing with our money, and how they’re ‘moving the needle’ on the problem we set out to solve together. But we don’t, I guess because, in the end, our giving is more about us than about them, which says something pretty significant, I think.
  • Related to that, it really just occurred to me preparing this post that we don’t support most of the organizations we give to in any other way–I don’t receive their action alerts, and we don’t advocate alongside them, and I don’t volunteer. We have a slate of organizations and causes with which we share what we have–some get our time, some my expertise, some our money. When I put it like that, it seems odd, and it has me thinking about why our charitable giving is somehow separate from the rest of our nonprofit work.

I’d love to hear about others’ giving habits–how do you give to nonprofits? Which ones are priorities for you, and why? How much research goes into your decision, and what information weighs most heavily? How would you characterize your relationship with the nonprofits you support financially? What does that say about what giving means to you?

The Power of One

One fairly influential individual

There are a lot of sort of pop psychology, bumper sticker motivationals out there about the difference that one individual can make…they all sort of run together for me, but you know what I mean, right?

Probably the best known is attributed to Helen Keller, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Beautiful, right? And capable of making me feel guilty when I’m, say, on my way to the fabric store instead of a rally.

The belief in the power of the individual is very much rooted in our culture, but much less frequently seen in how we build capacity for advocacy and social change.

Bet you never thought about that while stopped behind someone at a red light, hunh?

See, when it comes to how we invest in building power to make a difference, we tend to focus almost exclusively on networks of people, on the connections that bind us together, and on how we create structures that leverage those relationships for power.

Sure, it’s obvious that no social movements are the sole work of any individual, even those that are commonly associated with one. But isn’t it also just as true that single individuals do, perhaps not as often as we would wish, change the course of history in amazing ways?

So why is the organization, or the community, most often our focal unit, when we think about what we need to develop in order to reach our goals? Why do we sometimes sort of gloss over the individuals who populate those entities, as though they are somehow replaceable, even when history so clearly teaches us otherwise?

I’ve been particularly thinking about this over the past couple of weeks because of the work that I do with The Sunflower Foundation and its Advocacy Fellows initiative. The initiative is somewhat distinct, particularly in the philanthropic world, because it revolves around advocacy, specifically, rather than a more diffuse sense of nonprofit leadership, and yet, unlike many other advocacy capacity-building efforts, individual advocates are clearly the emphasis.

The theory of change animating the Advocacy Fellowship is this: “the Sunflower Foundation believes that increasing the number of nonprofit health leaders who advocate on behalf of their constituents informs public policy and leads to real solutions for those in need. By becoming involved in advocacy, nonprofit leaders are advancing their causes, building public trust, and helping the people they serve.”

Notably missing, then, is discussion about the organizations in which these individuals work (indeed, they fairly frequently move organizations during the Fellowship or quickly following it) or about the sector as a whole. Instead, the idea is to find promising people, who happen to be working in nonprofit health organizations, and to work intensively with them to develop the knowledge, skills, and, yes, relationships they need to be effective advocates themselves. They are the ones held accountable for moving their work forward, and they are seen as the keys to advancing a vision of a healthy Kansas.

We’re still very much in the early stages of evaluation, but the indications at this point are, really, that the model works–that, no, their organizations do not necessarily greatly increase their advocacy capacity, but they as individuals do, and that that makes a difference. They are quoted more frequently in media accounts of related policy debates, they engage in those debates more often and with more influence, they are more respected by a larger circle of potential targets and allies, and they are increasingly sophisticated and outspoken in their advocacy.

It’s a bit of a gamble, this business of investing in individuals. We feel safer, sometimes, with organizations, because of the law of averages, but those same “averaging” tendencies can dilute and stall the radical message we want to convey: that, in the end, justice hinges on you (and me).

Here’s to sparking movements, one soul at a time.

If we all gave like Sam…the abundance of a four-year-old

This thing was pretty heavy when he turned it in!

First of all, a slight disclaimer: Sam would want everyone to know that he is actually four and a HALF years old, not four.

It just made the title a little unwieldy.

With the legislative session in Kansas (and many other states) pretty recently concluded, and the damage wrought by the devastating budget cuts only beginning to take hold, and nonprofit organizations around the country struggling with the combination of public cuts and declines in private donations, I was struck by my oldest son’s reaction to a recent giving campaign at our church.

After the pastor explained that we were raising money for community development activities that help families living in poverty in the U.S. and around the world gain the skills and assets they need to live healthy and sustainable lives (livestock, small business capital, clean drinking water, core health services), he carefully assembled his cardboard bank, like kids have been doing for decades in the developed world.

And then he proceeded to put all of his allowance, saved from the past few weeks (not in anticipation of this, but just because he hadn’t gotten around to spending it yet) in the bank.

I reminded him that he gets $1 each week specifically to “share”, and that he could use that money instead of his spending money. And then I realized what I was doing and stopped talking.

He hadn’t forgotten about his “sharing” money. He was simply recognizing this giving opportunity as a good way to spend his allowance, more worthy than any of the ideas for personal consumption that he might have had. He gave joyfully, and rather effortlessly, with no angst over what could have been or what might come, but with an uncomplicated embrace of this chance to be part of something bigger than he.

I’m not suggesting that state legislatures, or even individual adult donors, give exactly like a preschooler. I mean, Sam’s basic needs are obviously all taken care of, and he gave out of truly disposable income that’s admittedly limited in many households and state capitals.

Except there is something to learn from his approach to money. It reflects a philosophy of abundance that’s not, really, unrealistic at all, but rather a hope-filled and somewhat self-fulfilling attitude that treats money as a tool (which it is), rather than something to be revered in its own right. He knows that he’ll get more satisfaction from hearing those coins clink in the big jar at church, and from hearing the stories about communities his money has helped, than he does from seeing the money sit on his dresser. And he knows that, quite honestly, other people need and can use that money much more than he.

And he’s right.

It reminded me, in a perhaps odd way, of a legislative forum I attended early in this session, where one of my favorite Kansas Senators lamented how we’re approaching the whole budget quandry from the “wrong end”, asking not “what are the functions that state government should perform, in order to achieve the prosperity and health and security and quality of life we desire (and deserve)”, but, instead, “how much money can we rather painlessly come up with, and how should we divide those limited dollars?”

Which question we ask does matter, and which question we choose will determine the kind of state government we end up with. The first looks at outcomes and believes that investments create abundance, while the latter approaches governing from a scarcity mentality and likely sows more scarcity in exchange.

And a similar cycle plays out in nonprofit organizations, too, even those that don’t rely on government funding. As donors, we more often give from what we think is left over, rather than starting with a question about what we want our donations to accomplish and what support we think the organizations to which we give really deserve.

Nonprofit organizations that depend on our gifts know that this is the giving reality, and they respond in kind: figuring out what they can possibly do with the money they can find, rather than setting goals and pursuing revenue that makes those dreams possible.

None of this is designed to berate nonprofit administrators, who confront nearly impossible choices these days when they do their books. Or even state legislators, who receive scarcity messages as they door-knock in their campaigns and find it difficult to imagine operating from another perspective.

It’s just a reminder, that perhaps we could build a better world, the world we all imagine if we allow ourselves that luxury, the world we know that we really deserve, if we approached the prospect of sharing, whether our public funds or our charitable contributions, with the gleeful abundance of a four-and-a-HALF-year old, who seems to know instinctively that, indeed, much is possible.