How and Why Stories Can Bust Nonprofit Silos | Beth's Blog

How and Why Stories Can Bust Nonprofit Silos

Digital Strategy

Flickr Photo by Rex Hammock

Note from Beth: Digital storytelling is key to fundraising success, but using a storytelling lens in your organization can have further benefit of busting organizational silos.  Miriam Brosseau and Stephanie Corleto share why.

How and Why Stories Can Bust Nonprofit Silos – Guest Post by Miriam Brosseau  and Stephanie Corleto 

Silos are for corn. Stories are for people.

Fortunately, storytelling busts silos.

Organizational silos are the bane of too many nonprofit communicators’ existences. Artificial barriers among program areas and staff can breed reactionary environments that are frustrating at best and debilitating at worst. Worse is the impact of siloed organizations on nonprofit audiences – cuz really, how many emails can you get from the same organization before you go a little nuts?

To be fair, silos do exist for a reason, and do have their benefits. In fact, we (that is, we organizations) kind of love them. They’re easy to manage. They make it easier to harness specific expertise. They create a sense of belonging (within the silo), trust (again, within the silo), and provide focus.

But in the individual-centric digital age, silos are doing nonprofits zero favors. The challenge is to reach our audiences where they are, in that moment, with compelling content and a call-to-action… Not exactly what siloed organizations are best at.

Delivering on that promise on the outside means making some changes on the inside.

Inspired by a session on busting organizational silos through digital storytelling delivered by the See3 team at the most recent Nonprofit Technology Conference, the National Institute for Reproductive Health is using its web content to move out the silos and bring in the stories.

“Addressing the website in the first place came from a recognition that it just wasn’t functioning for our constituents,” says Stephanie Corleto, Digital Communications Manager at National Institute for Reproductive Health. “We had to shift our content from speaking to our core constituents in the reproductive rights movement to being more approachable and externally focused.”

That meant shifting the organization of the website, but also adjusting the lens. “The website can’t be movement-centric; it needs to be supporter-centric,” says Corleto.

And that’s where the opportunity lies to not only improve the website, but to bring the NIRH team closer together.

The silo-busting is beginning with the planning process.

“We met internally with the communications team, but then also with Policy and Partnerships. We needed eyes from other departments to get buy-in on the project, bring in their expertise, and identify holes in the content,” Corleto relates. Those meetings led to content assignments, so everyone was contributing based on their role in the organization and the unique perspective they could bring to mission-driven content.

NIRH now has a solid plan to update the content on the website – and they’re starting their implementation this month.

“It’s really just the beginning. We have existing meetings with departments across the organization, but now we’re approaching them with an eye for  their stories of impact and success. We’re going to be working with departments across the organization to create content, instead of just reporting out from a policy or movement perspective. Bringing in those diverse voices means we can tell more stories and invite in new audiences.”

Those stories, then, have become both a tool for aligning the team and can act as the main pillars of NIRH’s digital engagement. Win-win!

At See3, we’ve observed that marketing challenges are often actually organizational alignment challenges. The messaging itself is almost a function of way the internal team is structured and communicating. Is the organization really set up on the inside to deliver on the promise they’re making on the outside?

There are three basic steps that anyone trapped in the communications department can start taking now to drive more engagement with their external audiences while knocking over silos internally:

  • Tell the whole story. If you’re only focused on telling the story of how awesome your impact is on your organization’s direct beneficiaries, you’re missing out on a world of content, impact, and new doors to welcome in new supporters. Try shifting the hero of your story to a volunteer, donor, sponsor – what’s their journey? That perspective shift forces you to connect with other departments to get insight into those moments of transformation, it exponentially increases your organization’s impact, and it provides aspirational models for engagement with your cause. (Here’s a bit about how See3 is doing that with the good folks at Make-A-Wish.)
  • Build story-gathering into your process. NIRH is building story-gathering into its website content refresh. Your organization may add it into your content calendar. Every See3 client is encouraged to include storytelling moments in their cross-departmental meetings. Some use Slack channels to share ideas and elevate small moments of success. See3’s clients at Hillel International integrated storytelling into their team meetings. How can you lead with stories?
  • Treat your team like donors: report on impact. Busting silos is ultimately about culture change. Any culture change initiative is most effective when you start with what’s working and nurture that, as opposed to focusing on what’s lacking and trying to fix (read: complain about) it. So, take those little moments and let your team know when their contribution made all the difference in, for instance, an especially popular blog post. Or share that an anecdote that came from another department led to a personal response from someone on your email list. Notice and lift up the bright spots. Start with what’s working to build trust and momentum.

Organizational silos aren’t going away anytime soon. But communications folks are in a unique position to use storytelling to start building some windows and doors between them.

Tell us how you’re letting the corn out and the stories in!

Miriam Brosseau is Chief Innovation Officer at See3 Communications where she consults, coaches, and trains clients like Make-A-Wish, Alzheimer’s Association, and Ceres on digital strategy and storytelling.

Stephanie Corleto is the Digital Communications Manager at National Institute for Reproductive Health and NIRH Action Fund, and has previously worked at WNET New York Public Media, French Institute Alliance Française, and Girl Scouts of the USA.

4 Responses

  1. Omar Ziadeh says:

    Storytelling is especially powerful for me. I am a huge fan of TED talks, and TED talks that leverage the power of story to elaborate on a bigger concept or idea are the talks that have the biggest effect on me. I find it hard to understand concepts that are simply represented as they are without a tangible example to back them up.People like to read about people, even more so, they like to read about people overcoming obstacles to success because it is inspiring. Thanks for the great article!

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