Storytelling for nonprofits, in new media and old

For years, Chicago’s Community Media Workshop has done that branch of the Lord’s work which involves helping nonprofits get the attention of reporters and editors. This has required presenting people with a few unpalatable home truths, specifically, that their events are not news and their programs are not news, while media are in the business of reporting news. But this year at its Making Media Connections conference, those truths will be served up with a little dollop of “Telling Our Own Stories” cream; and the Nonprofiteer wonders if that’s a good thing.

The annual conference (taking place next week, June 11-12) will feature an agglomeration of so-called Web 2.0 specialists, people experienced in using new media to get attention for nonprofits. This shift in program reflects a wider shift away from the old paradigm (businesses and charities pitch, editors decide, citizens hear the filtered result) to the blooming buzzing confusion of hyperlocal Websites, social media networks and opinion-shaping blogs and podcasts created by people sitting at the kitchen table in their underwear. (The Nonprofiteeer favors Calvin Kleins.) But here are some concerns:

  • The shift to “telling our own stories” is fine provided it retains the focus on whether other people have any reason to be interested in a nonprofit’s story. The problem with “every subject a writer and every writer an editor” is that many subjects–and writers, for that matter–are a little weak in the important skill of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. We all know nonprofit staff who simply cannot comprehend how anyone could fail to be passionate about their agency’s mission, simply because they themselves have such passion. People with this attitude are not merely unpersuasive but counter-persuasive (does the word “self-righteous” ring a bell?), and giving them a megaphone will not improve the agency’s access to the positive attention and support it requires.
  • Moreover, the most important thing for nonprofits to do is their job. It’s easy with new media (as it was with the chase for old-fashioned printer’s ink) to get preocupied with coverage as an outcome in and of itself–but for nonprofits, it rarely is. The most important question for an agency to ask at the beginning of pitching a reporter, or creating a Facebook page, or launching a blog, is “Who are we trying to reach, and for what purpose?” If your goal is to cause money to jump out of people’s pockets, telling your own story in the broadest sense is less important than getting hooked up with one of the social-media donation sites. If your goal is to strengthen your own advocacy efforts with legislators, telling your story is less important than identifying registered voters who will contact their elected representatives. And so on.

None of this is to say that Community Media Workshop–which also sends “Newstips” to reporters highlighting the newsworthy activities of its nonprofit constituency–is doing the wrong thing by seeking to empower agencies to be less dependent on the press.

If nothing else, the emphasis on new media may help nonprofit staff educate and diversify their Boards. Educate, by making clear that the constant Board cry “Get some newspaper coverage!” has even less potential today to solve a nonprofit’s financial and name-recognition difficulties than it did 15 years ago. Diversify, by helping Boards overloaded with old people (as most of them are) learn how to speak to the all-important next generation in its own language–or at least in its own forum.

For two decades, the Workshop has demystified the process of public communication for charities. Its new approach to teaching storytelling is a worthy and seamless continuation of that–one might almost say, a seamless Web 2.0.

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3 Responses to “Storytelling for nonprofits, in new media and old”

  1. Chris Benevich Says:

    You’ve made a strong case for hiring professional communications help. I share your concern for organizations that dig their graves by being unaware of basic publicity and marketing strategy. One point I drive home every day in my writing consultancy is to focus on what your client wants to learn, not on what you want to push.

    On the other hand, Web 2.0 can give voice to the beneficiaries of nonprofits and tap new communities outside the reach of traditional donor and member platforms. Yes, it’s our job as professional communicators to help shape the story for optimal impact within the boundaries of fact. But certainly we can share the stage and encourage authenticity by taking the hand of new content contributors.

    Thank you for posting, and keep up the valid criticism.

  2. YouTube and Online Video Promotions « Litterateur Says:

    […] June 5, 2008 Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbenevich @ 6:56 am I commented recently on how Web 2.0 benefits nonprofits by reaching nontraditional donor communities and distributing lesser-known voices. Artists benefit […]

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    You’re absolutely right that new media have a particular role to play in reaching new audiences, particularly younger audiences, and that therefore it behooves communications professionals to help nonprofits learn to tell their own stories through those new media.

    I was just having a “Patton” moment, wishing that every nonprofit communications maven–whether ED, Board member or outreach professional–had someone whispering in his/her ear the nonprofit equivalent of the warning to the conqueror “All glory is fleeting”–which would be something like “No one cares unless you tell them why they should.”

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