The Spirit of Detroit, Marshall Fredericks

Donor Communications in the Trump Era, Part I

Who’s Listening to Our Stories?

Mark Swartz: Kristin, what is wrong with the nonprofit world? Does it just have an inferiority complex, like poetry and jazz?

Kristin Palm: I think the nonprofit world could stand to have more of an inferiority complex. Too many organizations are secure with the ways they’ve always done things. They show no motivation to grow or evolve until they realize their government funding is eroding or steadfast philanthropic funders have decided to change direction. (Is it an even bigger problem that funders are always “reassessing priorities,” meaning that even the forward-thinking NPs doing meaningful, measurable work risk serious mission creep or even obsolescence due to shifting whims? Yes.)

Mind you, growing and evolving doesn’t necessarily mean changing what you do, if that is working or if your mission is laser focused. As for poetry and jazz, I have only two words: Kamasi Washington.

MS: Do funders actually pay attention to the social media of nonprofits? That is, do foundations or philanthropists make financial decisions based on stories they discover online? Sometimes we retweet or tag them in order to attract their notice, or we try to build up our following in order to show evidence of our outreach. But does anyone really know how to engage funders online in a way that leads to initial or renewed funding? My theory, as you may have guessed, is that we’ve gone overboard on storytelling at the expense of dialogue. We’re talking past each other. Neither side is listening. That’s what makes Kamasi Washington different. His ears are open.

KP: I think the answer depends on many factors: the type of nonprofit, the type of funders, their geographic location, among other things. Storytelling can be hard for the foundations to do since they are a step removed, so I think when we are good at it, and they can share that, they do take notice. Our funders retweet/repost our stuff all the time, and vice versa. But Detroit’s entrepreneurship community is pretty tight knit, not to mention social media addicted. I find the way philanthropy works in Detroit, and in the entrepreneurship realm in particular (especially at this rather mind-boggling moment, where there is so much interest in what happens here), rather different than how I saw it working in the Bay Area, where I was working in arts education and community development. There, the nonprofit industrial complex is way more entrenched, for one thing.

MS: The nonprofit scene in D.C. may be more highly evolved. There’s a recognition that policy and direct service work go hand-in-hand, and some of the most dynamic leaders are also the most experienced. Collaboration happens all the time. At the same time, because we’re the nation’s capital, a great deal of effort and money goes to national and international causes, leading us to collectively overlook the poverty, violence, and racial tension in our backyard — especially in the suburbs. That’s why I cofounded the Lever Fund, which is patterned after New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation.

KP: Whereas in Detroit, we are very local. Entrepreneurship 2.0 is in a really early stage. Success stories abound for us right now. What is success? A big win at a pitch competition, placement with a major retailer, a grand opening. Success a decade from now will be: how much have these businesses grown, how many jobs have they created, how have the brick-and-mortar businesses catalyzed additional retail development, how many are still around? It will be interesting to see what role storytelling plays then. I can say that we are already talking about success in terms beyond just launching your business. We’re acknowledging that “failure” is an inherent part of the process and looking at what happens to our business owners if and when they pivot. How did the support they received from us help them in their next endeavor? I don’t think this is something our funders measure (the traditional measures liked “jobs created” is difficult enough) so telling what we call “failure stories” is going to be important.

MS: Do you prefer one form of storytelling over another? We both started out as writers. How do video and social come out of that?

KP: I use video a lot and have received enthusiastic responses from funders, so again, I do think they give weight to these things. A nice tangential benefit I’ve noticed: videos motivate staff. Nonprofit employees are a humble bunch, on the whole, and bogged down in day-to-day particulars. A good video can remind them about the broader impact of the work. It’s always fun for me to debut a new video and see my colleagues’ reactions. There are often tears.

As for social media, I’m both a fan and a cynic. I think it provides an opportunity to tell a more well-rounded story about our work to those who follow us. But it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking you have done a great job telling your story because you’ve put up a post. Have you gamed the algorithm to get that story to the right people? And what about those who aren’t following you? For reasons I’ve articulated above, digital works well for us. But we put a lot behind it. I have a staff person and a consultant both devoting their time to social media. This is not a realistic nor advisable use of time or resources for everyone. We’re now at a point where no one can opt out, though, and I think that presents a challenge for many. Perhaps your dialogue theory provides an antidote of sorts? Let’s hear more. For starters, what does that look like and how does it play out practically?

MS: Before we get to that, let me explain how I sort of got over storytelling, even though I still do it. Ian Frazier is one of my favorites. In a review he wrote in last year in The New York Review of Books, he observed,

Nowadays, at least in America, writers often describe themselves as storytellers. They may add that stories are how human beings live, and that we connect with one another through stories, and that every one of us has a story, and that we need to take ownership of our stories, and that we share our stories as people have always done sitting around the campfire in the evening, and that then the stories blend into one overarching, inclusive story, etc.

That really struck me. He claims the Russian author Daniil Kharms “is so far from being a storyteller that his work shows up all this story-storyteller-storytelling business for the humdrum received wisdom it is.”

So it’s been a thing for me to go beyond storytelling. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of an adage stolen from Facebook: Foundations spent years trying to give voices to the voiceless when they should have been giving ears to the earless. The rich and powerful have gotten very good at tuning out protests and the any other noise they don’t like — whether it’s politicians, columnists, or think tanks. You don’t get them to listen by speaking louder or by honing your message. You get them to listen to you by listening to them.

I’m not sure what it looks like, but it involves more of us getting out from behind our computers, putting our phones away, and sitting around a conference table. Or better yet, a dinner table. I’ve heard of a phenomenon called Jeffersonian Dinners. Ironically, TED Talks, that bastion of monologues, has a good introduction:

KP: Since I am hard pressed to leave my house for dinner with people I know and love, I cringe a bit at the idea of a curated meal with strangers. That said, this sounds way better than one of those fundraising “house parties.” I disagree that honing your message doesn’t get people to listen any better. If nothing else, I think refining your message is an important way to make sure everyone within the organization is on the same page about what you do and is communicating it the same way externally. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many organizations are falling down on this. If you aren’t speaking clearly, the dialogue can’t begin.

Continue to part II: Introducing Ourselves.

Continue to part III: What Next?

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Kristin Palm is a freelance writer and educator who has worked in development, programming and communications for a variety of nonprofits. Currently, she is communications director for a business incubator in Detroit.

Mark Swartz is a writer and editor who helps organizations tell their stories.