The Stories That Work Database: How Nonprofits and Cause Initiatives Use Personal Stories in their Work
A presentation for the DePaul University Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Faculty Research Symposium, on June 8, 2015.
A. My Summer Research Grant Project: Building the Stories That Work Database
The database collects what I call “digital personal experience narratives” (DPENs) created by and used for nonprofit organizations and cause initiatives.
In rhetorical terms, the database = a tool for invention for nonprofit staff and those working in the service of causes.
- Source of ideas (Examples: Health stories that feature clients; Education stories told with text and photographs)
- Source of inspiration (Examples: the Featured facet)
- Crowdsourced resource (Add Stories page)
Next Steps for the Database
- Develop more site content: Summer quarter students will add more story entries, and will implement a “Blog” section, with posts that curate examples by sector and issue.
- User testing, to verify that the facets are appropriate.
- Funding/foundation sponsorship, to build the community of users.
- Assess database, especially as it grows, as a resource for analysis. For example, a researcher could extract story collections that feature organizational clients (within or across sectors), and analyze these stories for whether the client is positioned as a self-determining agent or a passive service recipient.
B. Using the Database Content for Research| “Stories That Work: The Rhetorical Possibilities for Nonprofit and Cause Initiative Digital Personal Experience Narratives”
The current state of practitioner dialogue around nonprofit storytelling: tell POWERFUL STORIES! But the STW database shows that not all DPENs—not even most—are ‘powerful,’ in the sense of being well-crafted, suspenseful, and capable persuasion-in-the-moment. Does this mean they’re lousy stories or failed efforts? Perhaps it means that nonprofits aren’t always trying to create shapely stories: there may be other kinds of rhetorical work that stories can do.
Research Question: What distinct types of rhetorical work can DPENs do for nonprofit organizations?
Sample: 88 story collections produced by or for nonprofit organizations (omitted the cause-initiative collections)
Method: Inductive textual analysis of both stories and collection interfaces
Results: Three distinct ways that stories can be used for persuasive ends…
- Narrative Transportation (Example: Massachusetts New Parents Initiative)
- Image Building (Example: Oberlin Stories)
- Public Formation (Example: My Coverage Story)
And each tactic requires different approaches to making and distributing stories…
Narrative Transportation: Prioritize crafting compelling stories; create an interface and tools that encourage individuals and groups to watch the story all the way through; put opportunities for action proximate to or concurrent with the story’s display context
Image Building: Handpick storytellers or solicit stories with the caveat that they will be edited; optimize all stories for distribution; be open to dialogic process, wherein management’s image of the organization changes based on listening to constituents’ stories
Public Formation: Prioritize ease of user contribution and sharing; tolerate ‘bad stories’; create an interface and/or distribution stategy that shows evidence of size, scope, and currency of the public
C. In Summary…
- Making ‘stories that work’ is not always about crafting a ‘powerful story,’ especially in the age of networked, digital media.
- Nonprofit organizations must allocate their resources and their energy differently, based on their desired rhetorical end.
- There’s lots to learn when we look at the diverse practices of organizations.