Nonprofits and Foundations Evaluation TIG Week: Storytelling from the Staff Perspective by Allison Prieur

You’ve probably been there – at a fundraising event, and someone who has accessed the service gets up to the mic to tell their story. Sometimes it’s okay, but from my experience it can turn cringey quickly when people start sharing intimate details about times when they were at their most vulnerable.

I’m Allison Prieur (she/her), an evaluator from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. My experience includes roles as both internal and external evaluator with funding organizations and with small to mid-sized human service non-profits. I’ve worked with foundations that receive funding from governments, and those that receive funding from donors. Regardless of funding source, foundations often need to tell stories about the beneficiaries of grants. Telling personal stories provides a compelling narrative, but it raises concerns around equity and dignity, which can put evaluators and program staff in an uncomfortable position.

Individual stories help to attract funding, draw media attention, open policy windows, and provide a key communication message for organizations that are generally an arm’s length from their impact. Stories add life to the data, helping potential donors, funders, and advocates understand complex outcomes in a relatable way. The non-profits I work with are often reluctant to share personal stories, and especially to ask beneficiaries to speak publicly on behalf of the organization. Their reasons are valid – it can feel exploitative to ask people who are accessing services to share their personal history with the public.

Over the years, I’ve found a way that provides mutual benefit by telling the human story without the risk of exploiting individual program participants. I leverage staff voices to tell their own stories about their work. I have felt the tone in the room lighten when I propose this option.

Hot Tip:

Often front-line staff aren’t sure about how to tell their story, and many feel nervous, especially if public speaking is not something they do regularly. Use your interviewing skills and meet with them ahead of time to hear their story, help them see how it relates to the key messages you’re trying to share, and develop speaking points to help boost their confidence. Flexibility is key to maintaining authenticity.

When we do use an individual story, we’re sure to still ask for permission from the participant. My colleague Brian at Family Services Windsor-Essex used this technique in a conference presentation where we shared our success with the Sustainable Livelihoods model. Brian told the story of why his work mattered and how using the framework was important to him. He also used an individual example to help conference attendees understand how the framework can be applied in a real-life situation. Conference participants gave us positive feedback about the quality of the presentation and the applicability to their own work. The presentation, from the 2021 Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness National Conference, is available online.

Donors, funders, journalists, and other stakeholders report finding these stories equally – and sometimes even more – impactful than those of participants. Staff have a unique perspective of having worked with many individuals, and with some good coaching they can pull together a big-picture narrative aligned with the communication needs of the organization. Staff can also speak to the systemic challenges in a way that maintains the dignity of the story while advocating for change. It’s no doubt that a strong narrative can benefit foundations and the organizations that they fund, and staff stories are a compelling tool to build that narrative.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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