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Wanted: Master Storytellers

The Nonprofit Quarterly (Boston, MA) , Fall 2005


This is about storytelling: how journalists tell stories to citizens; how nonprofits tell stories to journalists to convey to citizens; how we tell stories to each other to try to make sense of what is happening to our families, neighbors, and people we don’t know. And this is a plea for better storytelling from the people in clinics and classrooms, programs and public agencies, who have their hands on America’s future.

It is tempting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to tell a Crisis Story and to conjure Sympathy by parading the Victims. It’s an old story, and one familiar to advocates, in which it is assumed that the cumulative weight of all the individual stories will at last convince the reader of the need for effective government, opportunities for all, and a wide array of social services. The other story, the story of the importance of safeguarding the public structures that protect us all, is a story only dimly captured in the brochures and annual reports of the nonprofit field. Yet it is this latter story that, our research argues, is best suited to opening American hearts and minds to the kind of long-term change we need in this country, if we are to achieve a true opportunity society.

Clearly, we need to start telling a different kind of story. Nonprofits who wish to open the eyes of Americans must pioneer a new kind of value-based storytelling whose big story is about overcoming boundaries between people to engage in common-ground problem-solving. We need to ask ourselves, “What is the story behind the story—the big story that we tell ourselves over and over about our experiences as Americans? How are values embedded in the commentary and how do those values either help us solve problems together, as communities or as a country, or break us down into individual problem-solvers, a nation of individuals loosely tied together? How can we do a better job of wresting complex issues from the experts and explaining them in simple but accurate ways to ordinary people, so they get smarter about the way things work, and become better able to resist the inevitable spin of partisan distortions?”

Subjects Covered: business

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