A Turbulent Tale about Building Storytelling Culture at a Nonprofit

“How can we demonstrate the change that our work is bringing to the community?”

The Exposition

The above is a question that my marketing team and I regularly ask ourselves. We work at a nonprofit, New York Cares, that operates at tremendous scale, mobilizing 63,000 volunteers last year on 1,600 projects a month at 1,350 nonprofit and school partners. This enormous amount of volunteer energy powers many of the city’s essential services aimed at helping struggling New Yorkers.

However, while the volunteers we recruit and manage work directly with clients at our partner agencies, the programs and projects we design are meant to build capacity at those agencies, helping them serve more people in a cost-effective manner. Because of this indirect-service business model, measuring the ultimate impact of our work is difficult because it relies heavily on our partner relationships in monitoring the progress of our programs’ clientele.

When the team is writing donor appeals or creating a new infographic for sharing on social, we typically start by listing some of our impressive stats. For example, we say “We recruited and trained 500 volunteers to deliver free SAT Prep to 1,050 high school students last year, who improved their scores by 200 points, on average, from initial practice test to actual exam.” Are these numbers truly impressive? Yes. Do they speak to the power of volunteers as a driver of change in the community? Yes. But what exactly is the change that has occurred? Have more students gotten into college because of these programs? Most likely. Did more students receive critical financial aid due to higher test scores? Probably. Did the volunteers have a transformative experience along the way? Assuredly. However, we aren’t in a place yet to exactly quantify the ‘so what?’ of all these higher test scores and more confident students.

So, without reams of specific outcomes data, what can we do to convey to our stakeholders the immense impact that our programs are having?

Rising Action

The answer to our core question was almost always the same: focus on the individual. Tell personal stories of growth and change as a result of our work. Volunteers evolve through the act of service. Managers at our partner nonprofits see how volunteers can extend the reach of their programs. The people our volunteers serve learn new things and experience the compassion of others. And with New York Cares’ scale, gathering these powerful stories should be simple, right?

Right?

Wrong.

Compelling stories, even at an organization of 80-plus staff and 60,000-plus volunteers, just don’t fall out of the sky. You don’t even get them if you ask for them in a few email blasts or make an announcement at a staff meeting. What you need is an entire storytelling culture.

We didn’t know this important fact in the first months of our story-gathering efforts, though. We tried a variety of simple tactics early on, many in the vein of the email mentions and meeting announcements described above. In early 2014, after discovering the paltry returns these efforts produced, we worked to formalize the initiative, setting up a special cross-functional committee with representatives from each department — programs, development, corporate service, and others — who would be responsible for bringing powerful stories from the field to our community manager for formatting and distribution. Our manager would facilitate the work by providing quarterly themes to get the idea juices flowing and to focus the search for interesting stories. We got some decent content this way, but we quickly learned two things:

  1. Quality of content is paramount, but, in the digital age, with so many channels for telling stories, quantity of content is a close second. Simply put, we needed more stories than we were getting to truly enhance our digital content.
  2. To tell a compelling story, you need a journalistic approach. Volunteers and partners are exceptional human beings, but they aren’t always going to divulge in sufficient detail their motivations for giving back, their passion for important issues in their community, or those most inspiring moments in their work. The vital emotional aspects that create truly great stories often have to be searched for a bit, deeper questions often have to be asked, and we realized we didn’t have the training or set any expectations around identifying and gathering those key elements.

Halfway through 2014, I attended New York Cares’ annual Leadership Conference, where we bring together hundreds of volunteer leaders to discuss leadership skills and how to improve our work together. A colleague of mine who was planning the conference and who heard the call for powerful stories, scheduled the story-telling organization, the Moth, to run one of the workshops entirely geared toward helping our leaders and staff recognize, inquire about, and communicate stories that inspire people to action. The result was a team of individuals with the knowledge and wherewithal to take a journalistic mindset to their interactions on volunteer projects and unearth the quotes, emotions, and growth that happen across the city everyday which the communications team can turn into valuable content. We finally had a blueprint to tackle the second point above. Now we just needed a more consistent flow of ideas.

The Climax

Each winter for the past 27 years, New York Cares has run the New York Cares Coat Drive, collecting and distributing more than 1.8 million coats to New Yorkers in need. The massive success of the Coat Drive is due in part to marketing campaign imagery depicting a shivering Statue of Liberty that has become a recognizable brand in and of itself in NYC, in many cases more well-known than the larger New York Cares brand.

It was at the tail end of our 2014 Coat Drive when we were struggling most with story volume. It was the end of the calendar year and we were making fundraising appeals and one last push for coats. In the midst of this scramble for compelling messaging, our community manager exclaimed that what we really needed was a story drive. She couldn’t have been more right.

In January 2015, we set about developing a structure for our Story Drive, creating incentives for delivering leads and ideas, and monthly prizes for the best story. We also marketed heavily within our office, playing off the popular Coat Drive creative using our community manager as a model:

Ad creative from our 2014 Coat Drive campaign.
A parody of our well-known Coat Drive ad helped drive interest in the Story Drive among staff.

Finally, we greased the wheels, creating an easy-to-use, mobile-friendly story submission form where staff members could quickly send stories, or germs of stories, from any device, triggering an email notification to the communications team and populating a sortable spreadsheet.

We officially launched the Story Drive in January 2015 at our monthly all-staff meeting and, by February’s meeting, we had ten solid stories of impact that we could format and distribute through multiple channels to inspire New Yorkers to volunteer and donate. Our first monthly winner also told her tale in front of the staff and it was a hit. This is the story she submitted:

“During one of the project observations I was doing for our senior sports programs, I attended a Monday morning fitness class at Sunnyside Community Services In Queens. To give you some background, the team leader, Bill, is a senior himself and leads the group in deep breathing, full body stretching, resistance band exercises, and even squats. He also added in a “mind exercise,” where he has the participants sit down and try to rub their stomach and pat their head at the same time. He figured if he is keeping their bodies active, he should keep their minds active as well.
After the class, I was approached by two women who took part in the class. They told me that they have come to the class every Monday for the past year, and since doing so they have not had as much pain in their joints, find it easier to get up out of bed each day, and take less medications for arthritis and pain. They said that Bill was able to make the movements simple and repetitive so they can remember what to do to replicate them at home. One woman said, “I would be a lump on a log if it wasn’t for these New York Cares volunteers getting me out of bed each Monday morning. The center is closed for the weekend and it used to be hard to want to come back each week. Now, I need this class. I feel great.”

Denouement

Since the launch of the Story Drive, we’ve averaged about eight to ten viable stories a month. Considering how much viral life we can squeeze out of one piece of excellent content, ten good stories of our mission in action feels like an embarrassment of riches. We have also used the stories to produce contacts for our Someone of the Week social campaign where we feature stories of individuals and their personal journeys in volunteering.

The current challenge is bringing the Story Drive to our volunteer base, to try to gather stories directly from the people creating them. We have made a call for stories block a staple of the footers on all of our email campaigns and added a line about submitting stories to the welcome message on volunteer profile web pages, but we have received feedback that submitting an entire ‘story’ seems a little daunting. We have changed the terminology, now asking constituents to send in ‘that one inspiring moment,’ and we’ve dialed up the inspiration and cut down on required fields on the submission form. Most importantly, we have continued to learn about what strategies and tactics are effective in building and growing a storytelling culture, a journey that will likely prove to be a never-ending story.

I would love to hear other tales, tips, and lessons learned on building a storytelling culture among stakeholder groups, either internally or externally.