COF: Philanthropy’s Story From the Bottom Up

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

Katy Moore, Washington Grantmakers

The challenges of “telling philanthropy’s story” are not new. From the basic (and often dreaded) question “so, what do you do?” to organizational and field-wide messages, we struggle with communicating about who we are, what we do and why anyone should care. At yesterday’s “Telling Your Story: Letting People Know How You’re Changing the World,” we got a glimpse into a few foundations and organizations that are telling their stories from a different perspective.

David Isay, founder of StoryCorps (25,000 personal stories and growing) shared a few of his favorites as an illustration of the power that one authentic, personal account can have. According to Isay, “across history, personal stories have been how we have digested and understood huge issues… Telling an individual’s story is ‘history from the bottom up.’”

Dave Beckwith, Executive Director of The Needmor Fund shared the family foundation’s anniversary publication, “50 Years, 50 Stories,” published to widen the circle of colleagues who fund in community organizing. (I really loved her quote: “Social engagement begins when we share our stories…Social change happens when we agree together to change the ending.”)

Dianna O’Neill, Manager of Interactive Communications at the FedEx Foundation showed a short video which took top honors at the first annual Corporate Citizenship Film Festival earlier this year. The  film tells the foundation’s story using only the voices of employees, grantees and people served (not a single chart or graph – not even a narrator!). O’Neill emphasized that “the small details and human anecdotes tell the full story of the foundation’s work much better than top-down data.”

I think O’Neill is right on the money–and, strangely enough, the perspective that’s most often missing in our stories may be that of the grantmaker employees. Is it possible that no one understands philanthropy’s role because we only talk about our grantees? Yes, many of our stories are the same—we are all working to improve our communities—but we do philanthropy no favors by glossing over our own chapters.

In a time of increased scrutiny and oversight, it’s crucial that foundations get better at communicating their worth. Along with hard data we’ll need great stories, which will benefit immensely from new and unexpected points of view—and that includes yours.

Katy Moore is director of member services at Washington Grantmakers.

One Comment

  1. Karen Dietz says:

    I love the material you posted Katy and am so glad this issue is on the docket. Dave Beckwith’s quote is right on. As a business consultant and storyteller working with non-profits and organizations, I train people to become effective storytellers. Telling our personal stories is key, but story sharing is where the real gold is. And yes, staff stories are just as important as grantee’s stories!

    Two key questions to ask when developing core stories are “What am I giving someone by telling them this story?” and “What am I giving myself when I tell this story?” Answers to both connect into the power of story dynamics and story sharing.

    Looking forward to your next installment!