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The Power of Narrative: Philanthropy and Storytelling
August 31, 2017

Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia

Nicole Richards photoWhen it comes to storytelling, philanthropy generally gets a failing grade.

It’s not that we’re short on great stories—they’re everywhere. We hear, see and experience them every day in our work to catalyse positive social change. The story opportunities in philanthropy flow as bountifully as the chocolate river in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But who has the time to capture them so that they become more than just a feel-good anecdote? Who has the capacity to tell them in a way that might influence others to act? Most of us are too busy with the business of grantmaking and measuring impact to share more than the occasional story at a board meeting or conference. Thousands of stories slip away.

Willy Wonka & RiverThat’s to our detriment. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling—stories are what connect us.

Three months ago, I stepped into the newly created role of Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia, the national industry association for giving in Australia. The position, which is directly aligned with the organization’s strategic plan, has been backed for three years by five local funders who believe in the power and potential of storytelling to grow giving in this country.

The stories I tell span the spectrum of philanthropy, with a view to increasing transparency for a diverse cast of philanthropic actors. From collective giving groups and newly established private ancillary funds to the country’s oldest philanthropic foundations—the stories and the protagonists are distinct but the intent is the same: to make a difference.

Some of those are human interest stories that profile funders and their giving journeys case studies that showcase good practices, and opinion-style narratives designed to challenge the status quo.

From what we’ve seen, the appetite for these stories is boundless—philanthropists of all sizes and persuasions love learning from the collective experience of their peers. Telling these stories, or better yet, passing the mic so that the stories can be recounted firsthand by the funders, their nonprofit partners and the communities they serve, is a powerful form of knowledge sharing, of connecting people with new ideas and networks.

While it’s easy enough to find  and package the stories for ready consumption by those already practicing philanthropy, the bigger challenge is to send the stories beyond the echo chamber and put them before would-be philanthropists and aspiring social change makers. 

That’s as much about opening up philanthropy to demystify it for the uninitiated as it is about sharing stories of philanthropic impact for other philanthropy insiders. Philanthropy is too often viewed as the closed-door, exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy. As agents of philanthropy, we have a responsibility to bust that myth and lift the veil.

Not all the stories we choose to tell should gleam like candy—the authenticity of the story is critical to its impact. We need more cautionary tales such as stories of failure, of missteps and strategies that went awry. By sharing the stories that aren’t sugar-coated, we make philanthropy less opaque, more accessible and ultimately more effective. By making storytelling a part of our process, we begin to normalize a culture of openness.

While crooning about pure imagination beside his chocolate river, Willie Wonka intoned: “Want to change the world…there’s nothing to it.”

We know he’s wrong on that front, but his golden ticket giveaway of the chocolate factory was a great story.

There’s a story behind every act of giving. For the sake of more and better philanthropy, it’s time we took those stories beyond the chocolate factory gates.

--Nicole Richards

 

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