The Power of Storytelling

Having just returned from the Council on Foundations Annual Conferencethis past week in Los Angeles, I was able to join with 1,300 of my colleagues in philanthropy to discuss the challenges and trends we are seeing. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of conversation about the economy, growing income disparities, the effects of federal and state budget cuts, increasing polarization in our public discourse, and other issues of shared concern. At the same time, there were some important, common themes that emerged and that serve as good reminders for how we can continue to enhance philanthropy’s contribution to addressing these various challenges.

One particularly resonant theme throughout the conference related to the power of storytelling. Good stories can shine a spotlight on our grantees’ successes and on the issues we care most about. Most importantly, stories might be the most effective way to encourage others to join us in forging solutions. The power of stories was evident in the conference’s opening video of rebuilding and recovery in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit, showing the central role that philanthropy can play in rebuilding after crises and strengthening communities in the process.

I was reminded of the video’s images of communities working together when PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell spoke in Tuesday morning’s session on America’s vanishing middle class. Angela is a powerful voice in the national discourse on social justice and she dramatically advocated for society to see the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” as the nation’s problem. “What happens to the people who the country has been too comfortable leaving behind will shape the future of our country,” she remarked, an important reminder of the need to include the disadvantaged in our ongoing narrative about the changing economy.

The power of storytelling was also highlighted in several of the short presentations during the conference’s closing session, where eight presenters told short vignettes about philanthropy. Andy Goodman’s first slide made the point quite directly: Our data doesn’t matter. He went on to describe how humans are hardwired to make sense of the world through stories, and that data that doesn’t support our narrative understanding will simply be ignored. Facts that are presented in the context of a compelling story, however, can change minds and compel people to action.

We experienced firsthand just how powerful stories can be when Emmett Carson of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation took the stage. In his vignette, which closed the conference, he presented a powerful narrative, with supporting data, about the social and economic challenges our nation faces, and urged foundations to tackle them with greater urgency, more boldness, more risk-taking, and less fear of controversy. His closing image of a kitten looking into a mirror and seeing a lion in the reflection generated many laughs, but the seriousness of his point was not lost on the audience when he stated boldly: “Foundations ought to roar like lions and not purr like kittens” if we hope to reach the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves.

The power of stories resonated throughout the conference and encourages those of us in philanthropy to find more effective ways to shape public understanding of the issues before us, to support our partners to effectively tell their stories, and to remember that our work is fundamentally a human enterprise, which is why effective storytelling and thoughtful narrative needs to be a central tool in our philanthropic toolkits.

Jim Canales is president and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation.

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