The following article was originally published November 22, 2016, by Fluxx. We are grateful to Fluxx for allowing us to share its content, and we encourage you to click here to see the company’s original content and learn more. Also, click here to watch "4 Keys to Successful Storytelling."
There is a story about Arkansas that is widely known by those who live and work there. It’s the same story shared by residents, their parents, and their parents before them. It’s a story about failure and the acceptance of failure. The story is supported by data that paints a picture of a bleak economic outlook fueled by low paying and low-skilled jobs and an education system that is unable to provide its students with the opportunity they deserve.
The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF), one of Arkansas’s oldest philanthropies, is well aware of this story. The Foundation has a 40-year history of supporting and sustaining organizations committed to serving and strengthening the state.
But WRF believes there is another far more important story to be told. The Foundation is telling a story of hope because nothing will change unless Arkansans know the opportunities available to them and the brighter future they can create.
But telling this story hasn’t come without its challenges.
“Storytelling has been a messy, iterative, and time-consuming process,” says Brad Cameron-Cooper, communications and knowledge management associate at WRF. “We’re continuously refining our approach.” For many years, WRF has relied on online reports to share snapshots of where Arkansas is in key areas, but snapshots of successes and lessons learned do not continuously empower the Foundation’s partners and stakeholders to take action. Cameron-Cooper cites WRF’s 2012 annual report as one example: “The report shares a compelling story about the positive economic impact immigrants have on Arkansas and shares our commitment to supporting new Americans to increase prosperity in the state. While the story is strong, residents are now asking themselves: ‘What’s my role?’”
Since then, the Foundation has learned to enhance how it tells stories. One of the Foundation’s education initiatives, the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (AR-GLR) is a perfect example. WRF specifically targets key players and frequently communicates the important role they can play for the campaign’s success. It’s important that the messaging reaches these key players frequently and “where they are,” whether in person, on social media, or even through the local Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, AETN.
Capacity is also a challenge. Committing to data-informed storytelling has meant that WRF had to appoint a dedicated team member who could spend adequate time on understanding the data and crafting the narrative.
It’s important to note, Cameron-Cooper said, that it’s taken more than eight years for WRF to launch a grantee partner data collaboration system because the Foundation did not have a member of staff consistently owning the project. “The hard lesson learned here is that our organization has had to create a new role–my role–to move a process forward to tell our story to inform strategy development and outreach,” he adds.
“As we’re beginning to think more critically about the story our grants tell, we’ve been able to use Fluxx to easily get the answers we need,” Cameron-Cooper says. “Fluxx has made it possible for us to adjust our grants management system to adapt to our processes rather than the other way around. How we think about managing grants is no longer determined by the limits of our technology.”
Fluxx helps WRF assess its grantmaking, capture lessons learned, and ultimately tell more meaningful stories. For their part, the Foundation has begun reassessing how staff use data from grantee partners for final reports. It is also starting to use Fluxx to improve how staff members capture the verbal data they hear directly from grantees.
WRF has also developed what they call the Grantee Outcomes and Assessment Learning System (GOALS). This system “combines everything we are learning, organizes it so we can view the progress we’re collectively making toward our strategic plan goals, and empowers us to share loudly and proudly the story of how we’re doing our part to improve the lives of all Arkansans with our partners.”
“While data is at the heart of excellent storytelling, collecting data is not the end goal,” Cameron-Cooper says. “Crafting and effectively sharing a compelling story that engages and mobilizes your stakeholders to serve as ambassadors, advocates, and activists for your cause should always be your end goal.”
Cameron-Cooper advises: “For foundations, be aware of the power you have in this relationship: stories and the data that inform them should always be used as a flashlight and not a hammer; furthermore, hold yourselves to the same expectations about transparency and accountability as you do your grantees.”
Also, foundations need to make sure to think about grantees as partners. “Ask yourself,” says Cameron-Cooper, “‘Does our network of partners and allies have the capacity to radically transform the communities we work in in the most effective way?’” If the answer is no, he advises searching for the right partners or adjusting strategy accordingly.
Then, he says, figure out what the current story is: collect information on where you are compared to where you need to be to support the change that needs to happen, discuss what this information teaches you, and sit down with all your partners to develop an actionable, logical, measurable plan for creating the story you set out to tell.
Successfully communicating the story your foundation sets out to tell can be a challenge. The story must be compelling and use appropriate data. The messaging needs to reach important stakeholders, and it has to include a clear path to action for key players. With a little help from the right technology and the level of commitment WRF has shown in Arkansas, it’s clear that the challenge isn’t insurmountable.
Watch "4 Keys to Successful Storytelling"
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