Developing a Sustainable Culture of Social Impact Storytelling

People around a campfire, telling stories

Storytelling is inextricably linked to what it means to be a human being. In fact, some experts say that humans are perhaps the only member of the animal kingdom that can create and tell stories. We communicate and think in stories - both real and imagined ones—every single day of our lives in and out of the workplace. Stories make us unique.

It should not be surprising, then, that this ancient form of communication has important modern day applications as a tool of influence on behalf of social impact issues. It’s crucial that organizational leaders not only tell stories but also work towards creating a culture of storytelling to make the work sustainable.

This topic is of such importance that it is a course within the online Certificate in Social Impact Storytelling program, which brings to life applied research conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.

Cultures of Storytelling within Social Impact Organizations

Regardless of your social impact setting—a nonprofit organization, socially responsible business or grassroots movement—the good news is that your organization or group already has a culture of storytelling. You and your colleagues are telling stories whether you consciously realize it or not.

Researchers estimate that up to 65 percent of our daily communication is based on storytelling. Of course, sometimes forms of storytelling like gossip can be negative in nature and not positively impact the work we’re striving to advance. However, this also means that every group has a baseline of storytelling within its culture from which to draw upon. The next step becomes how to assess that culture and then further build it in strategic and sustainable ways.

As Georgetown’s “Stories Worth Telling” report puts it, “a vibrant storytelling culture within a nonprofit can mean the difference between having one, somewhat stagnant story that represents the organization’s impact and a living, breathing portfolio of different stories told from different perspectives.” Ultimately, we work to build a culture of storytelling so that stories become a part of the fabric of the organization in order to support its mission.

Growing Mindset and Appreciation

According to our research, strong cultures of storytelling possess two general categories: mindset and appreciation for the value of stories and the capacity to create and share them. While capacity-building is crucial, especially focusing on stoking the mindset and appreciation is key. This means that the importance of storytelling permeates throughout the organization or team as an important value. Even if storytelling is more directly tied to certain roles, stories are seen as not just a “nice to have” but rather are identified as a key strategic function that helps to bring to life the social impact work of the organization.

Here are strategies for increasing storytelling mindset and appreciation:

  1. Story Starts: Start each meeting or gathering by having a designated team member share a story about your work.
  2. Story Wall: Build a story “wall” to display stories in some sort of format, making them physically represented within your office as a constant reminder.
  3. Story Jobs: Incorporate some aspect of storytelling into everyone’s job description.
  4. Story Leaders: Encourage leadership and board members to lead by example and share stories as a way to persuade staff to do the same.
  5. Story Committee: Develop a storytelling committee composed of members of different teams that meets monthly to develop story ideas and plans.

Ultimately, to develop cultures of storytelling you must start somewhere. It’s important to develop priorities and then to identify both near- and long-term strategies to continually develop a storytelling culture that helps to bring to life social impact.

Learn more about Georgetown’s Certificate in Social Impact Storytelling, which teaches changemakers of all types how to harness the power of effective storytelling for the strategic benefit of an organization and society as a whole.

Learn more