Presenting at the LAS Research Symposium

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

Browse or Search All Stories Page of the Stories That Work Database (click image to visit site).
The ‘Browse or Search All Stories’ Page of the Stories That Work Database (click image to visit site).

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

  1. 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.
  2. User testing, to verify that the facets are appropriate.
  3. Funding/foundation sponsorship, to build the community of users.
  4. 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…

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.