Building a Leadership Culture: The Public Narrative

Like it or not, you’re a leader. You can either be dragged or come willingly. Leading does not make you special. No matter your role or position, leadership is what counts but, sadly, it does not guarantee you will be counted.

Leading is vitally important in social change work. We don’t really need a leader when things are simple and the way is sure. We need leaders to motivate, engage, influence, and help navigate when things are scary and uncertain.

Leadership is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in difficult circumstances (Marshall Ganz).

How’d you end up here? Maybe you had the thought “I need to do my part,” or “I want to make a difference,” or “I have skills to share.” Whatever got you into this and moved you past inertia, congratulations. You’re now in it. You’re the executive director. You’re on the board of directors. You’re running a committee, or generating resources.

The point at which you crossed over to commitment might have passed without fanfare, largely unexamined. This is no big deal, right? But, if you don’t understand (and can’t articulate) your motivations and what brings you to this, you might find yourself confused, demotivated, ego-hijacked, and mired in the stuff and endless complexity of organizations. When you are actually in the world, talking with a friend or colleague about your mission, your unexamined story leaves you flat-footed when you might have truly inspired someone to feel curious and maybe even to engage.

We’re all privately wondering what we ought to be doing on this planet. Not everyone is like Moses who just happened to pass by a talking burning bush one day. People have wondered how to live well for all of recorded history. When asked how to come to terms with this question, Rabbi Hillel in the first century replied in typical consultant fashion with three questions for our consideration:

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I?
  3. If not now when?

What did he mean by that?

Question 1: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If you presume to take responsibility for leadership you need to know why, and what’s in it for you. Why did that Flint Michigan whistle blower at the water utility decide to risk going public with what she discovered? I guarantee you the answers go back to her personal story.

Question 2: If I am for myself alone, what am I?

Your capacity to realize your objectives is bound up with others realizing theirs. You need to know who you should connect with to realize your goals and what they care about. If people can’t trust their public institutions to keep the water safe it’s not just the water we need to be worried about – we all have a stake in this.

Question 3: If not now when?

Perfect is the enemy of the good. Not to say that strategy is not important, but we can wring our hands to the point of paralysis. Through action, we gain understanding. Since blowing the whistle in Flint, activists have uncovered the depths of corruption, and the degree of entrenchment that is keeping the status quo in place. Action brought this to light.

Self, Others, Action. The plot line of leadership.

Rabbi Hillel posed big questions, but paradoxically we’re not supposed to answer them. In fact we never will. Leadership is developmental. It’s not about knowing or having all the answers. On the contrary, when we lead, our job is to keep raising sticky questions that challenge and motivate others. Using our own outrage, grief, and hope, we can move and enable others to tap into emotions to achieve shared goals.

It’s this emotional or heart aspect of leadership that often gets short shrift. If facts alone don’t move people, then what does? What instills a sense that “yes we can?” The answer is story.

Story = Character, Plot, Moral.

Stories teach us. Through a thoughtfully crafted story, we share more than facts. We conjure experiences – our own and others’ — that don’t just tell but show us a way through. After a long career practicing the methods of harnessing story for social change, Marshall Ganz became a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he now teaches storytelling for social change. He calls his approach to storytelling “The Public Narrative.”

Public Narrative has three components:

  • The Story of Self,
  • The Story of Us, and
  • The Story of Now.

The Story of Self: Why and how you were called to what you have been called to.

This part of your story recounts the experiences that have shaped you, including one or more key moments of decision – what Ganz called “choice points.” – in which you faced a challenge, made a choice, experienced a lesson, or learned a moral. These moments construct our moral identities, define our worldview, and make explicit the implicit values driving us. The Story of Self helps the listener tune in by illuminating the speaker’s connection with the topic of discussion, and by revealing possible places of resonance and connection. In this way, the Story of Self taps into a listener’s own stories, and invites relationship.

The Story of Us: How your story connects with their story – the experiences we all share.

This section of your narrative links your personal experiences with the people you are aiming to bring together. It uses shared experience to evoke shared values and feelings. It reminds us what we have all been through, how those experiences have affected us, and the hopes and dreams we have in spite of the uncertainty and even improbability of achieving what we seek.

The Story of Now: The urgent challenges – or tension between how the world is and how it should be – and the invitation to specific and decisive action.

This section is where we can say “enough is enough and here is what’s possible if we act.” It invites the listener to act from their values, respond from their hope, and join with others to engage. It is not overly general, as in “let’s all get involved (and then go eat pizza).” It offers a specific path to make a difference. “Let’s show up at this time in this place by the tens of thousands to send a powerful message to policy makers.”

Curious and want to learn more?

If you want to learn how to incorporate Public Narrative techniques into your approach to advocacy, fundraising, organizing, or management, there are scads of publically available resources. For an introduction to the Public Narrative, enroll (for free) in the Resistance School (it takes 30 seconds), and view the Public Narrative workshop taught by Professor Ganz himself for organizers from around the United States. The workshop videos are excellent and take 90 minutes to view in total.

To put public narrative into practice for yourself, it helps to see it modeled, try it yourself, and get feedback from others. Here are some YouTube samples of Public Narrative in practice:

Here is James Croft at Harvard using public narrative to inspire his fellow students to create “It Gets Better” videos to respond to a rash of suicides by gay men who were bullied and harassed.

Here is Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The Generosity Network, by Jennifer McRea describes how she worked with Marshall Ganz at Harvard to integrate the Public Narrative into her approach to donor engagement and fundraising. If you can, order a copy of Jennifer’s book from your local independent bookseller. Jennifer also teaches fundraising workshops at the Harvard campus which incorporate Public Narrative.

I am glad to talk with you about designing a Public Narrative training for your Board and staff. Already using Public Narrative? I would love to hear your stories. Please leave a comment or send me an email.


What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

 

Tools for Culture Building: The Case for Support

Recently, I attended an event celebrating my friend Michelle’s 10th anniversary as the development director of Legal Voice, an extraordinary women’s rights advocacy organization. Let’s just say they’re super busy these days with no shortage of alarming issues to respond to. But, as their Executive Director made clear right from hello, everything they do is about long-term systemic change.

By the time I got my coat off and ordered a beer it was obvious this organization is soulfully clear on its purpose. Every person in that room got it — the love, meaning, and gratification of being part of a family of change makers. That and the jojo’s (my friend hails from Ohio) filled me up.

I’m smitten by a deep sense of purpose. Aren’t you? We’re wired to notice it. It’s irresistible.

So how do we build a culture that connects us to that pulse of purpose and to a loving invitation to be part of our movement from the moment anyone walks through that door?

Welcome to my series on culture building where I share powerful and proven tools that enable you to create more of what you want (anything in this list grab you?) by paying attention to what matters.

  • More revenue,
  • Better employee retention,
  • Stronger boards,
  • Real change, and
  • Joy

First up? The Case for Support.

What is a Case for Support?

Your Case for Support is a comprehensive articulation of why we should care. The Case captures the issue in the community that your organization is responding to, your vision and goals for change, your plan for making that change, and why your organization is credible to successfully fulfill that plan.

This is not a quick two-page, bulleted PDF. That comes later. All sorts of “case products” in various sizes and formats, including grant proposals, websites, major donor proposals, event speeches, etc., draw from your Case. Rather, your Case is a long-form, internal document, your mega FAQ, a repository of your strongest answers to external facing donor and general questions. You will be polishing, and turning to it again and again.

Your Case should reflect your organization’s best thinking. It should align with your strategic plan and with your leadership team’s best wisdom. It should make the program staff smile. It should inspire your fundraising team.

Developing Your Case: The Process

The process of developing a great Case for Support is as important as the final product. To the extent that your organization has not fully articulated what you are asking funders and donors to support, your fearless fundraising professional often serves as Case Custodian in Chief. Wearing multiple hats -– researcher, departmental liaison, program planner, project manager, detective, cajoler, editor –- s/he/they leads the organization to harvest its best thinking around the story of impact. Top leadership’s job is to help ensure the Case is a visible and shared organizational priority.

A strong Case assumes your Board and staff are aligned around a comprehensive strategic plan. If you have no strategic plan, here is some reading to start that conversation.

In the typical pressure-cooker environment of a nonprofit or government agency, it is tempting (and all too common) to defer development of your Case, to instead charge someone to churn out proposals to fit whatever a funder or powerful donor wants to hear. We direct communications professionals to craft the annual report, brochures, or other key communications with little foundational guidance. Without a Case, you are submitting proposals and communicating on the hope that you can “iron out inconsistencies and inaccuracies later.” The organization tells the donor what she wants to hear and then, most often, gets found out. “Did we promise to serve 500 veterans when realistically we can only serve 150?” This is how you harm your organization’s reputation, poison the relationship with a donor, make staff look back, and, most importantly, sell out the beneficiaries you might have helped.

Make sure what you communicate and promise is accurate and aligned. Senior leaders, you must empower fundraising leadership to internally align what you do with whatever you promise in the community.

Case for Support Homework

In the graduate fundraising course I teach, the very first assignment my students tackle is to pick a nonprofit they feel passionate about and use public sources to draft a Case for Support. I ask them to use the headings in the outline below, and to simply draft or copy and paste narrative responses they can find into each heading. We then workshop the gaps in class.

As staff, you have a great deal more to draw on:

  • Recent grant proposals;
  • Coffee meetings with program staff;
  • Board presentations of your program scorecard;
  • Text from the executive director’s speech from the gala;
  • The long-form version of your strategic framework and program plan;

After you’ve compiled the language by heading, begin your critical review. What are the gaps in your argument? What questions can you anticipate donors having? Who should be involved in addressing these gaps and answering these questions? Sleuth out answers and craft your text accordingly.

All assertions of fact and/or statistics must be accompanied by appropriate citations along with links to the source material wherever possible. You don’t want to have to spend hours hunting for the source of a key data point on poverty that anchors a key element of your Case. Be ready to back up what you say.

Case Outline:

  • Issue Overview: Define the community problem you are solving. What is the community issue your organization’s work is focused on?
  • What is your vision statement: What will be so if you’ve been 100% successful?
  • What is your mission: What is your organization’s role in advancing your vision?
  • What are your values: What are the principles/standards/norms that guide your behavior, decisions, and actions, big and small?
  • What external conditions need to be in place to make your vision possible: What are the most crucial factors that must be addressed to create the conditions for change?
  • What specific strategies is your organization employing to create these conditions for success: What approaches are you taking to create the conditions for change?
  • Theory of Action/Change: How will your organization’s strategies make change? Can you summarize how your approach translates to actual impact?
  • How does your organization track progress toward desired impact: What indicators are you tracking to determine whether you are on course?
  • Organization history/Genesis story: What is the story of how your organization came to be?
  • Cost of doing nothing/delaying: What makes this work so urgent right now?
  • Organization Leadership: Who are the key staff and board leaders? What is their background? How are your organization’s leaders well-positioned to help advance the goals of the organization?
  • Community Connection/Partnerships: What organizations are partnering with you to increase your reach, or make your work more effective than it would be were you acting alone?
  • Overall Budget – Financial Model: How is your organization financed overall? How does your organization invest its resources? % Admin? % Fundraising? % Program?
  • Program Overview: Pick a program area to describe in detail. Is this a new program or a proven solution? Why is your approach effective? If a long-time program, what kind of track record does it have and how might it now break new ground? What sparked the development of this programmatic approach?
  • Program Goals and Objectives: What are the major goals and specific measurable objectives for this program?
  • Program Financial Metrics: What is the annual budget allocation for this program? What does it cost to deliver this program per program recipient? Are there any metrics related to financial return-on-investment you can cite?
  • Project Timeline: What is the timeline for the project? Is your project 3-years, 1-year, 6-months? What are the important steps/milestones of the project for the funding period?
  • Specific Project Costs: For the project period, what are the project costs including portion of ongoing admin, overall program costs, and specific additional project costs?
  • Project Budget Narrative: How will you spend the money (exactly)?
  • Sustainability Strategy: What is this organization’s plan for sustaining/scaling this program long term?
  • APPENDICES: What other supporting material, articles, data, or anecdotal account lend evidence to the effectiveness of your work?

Big Questions and Great Conversations

All this stuff I’ve written here? I did not get it from a book. I learned it by scrapping it out in the real world of sourcing support for my cause. As a consultant, what amazes me sometimes is the degree to which organizations wait for the consultant to show up to have the important conversations. The Case process is one way to identify your big questions, and start having those great conversations now.

What big questions need exploring? Who needs to be part of this conversation? How can we engage them? What will it take to have the conversations and decide what needs deciding to make the extraordinary work we are doing as irresistibly compelling as possible? If you need a coach to support a strategic planning refresh, to design and facilitate crucial conversations with board and staff, or just to help you develop a strong Case for Support, let’s talk. I can help.

This is culture building. This is leading. Stay tuned for more!

Where are you with your Case for Support? What cultural challenges are your confronting? Thanks for your ideas, comments, and questions below!


What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.