Four steps to becoming a strategic storyteller

Our lives are full of stories, from those we tell our fricouple camping at nightends and hear from co-workers to those we consume all day across the media we can’t live without.

Research tells us humans are hard-wired to be storytellers. It’s our default method for giving meaning to the otherwise random events of life. And hearing stories is one way we simulate situations and learn before actually experiencing them. Similarly, stories invite others to participate and emotionally engage with the messages or morals they convey.

This more recent understanding of the dominant role stories play in human interactions is why so many communications advisers are urging organizations to embrace storytelling in their marketing, outreach, and fundraising.

From where I sit, this is sound advice. But it begs the question: Out of the dozens of stories potentially at our disposal, how do we decide which ones to develop and share? In other words, how can we be strategic about the stories we tell, rather than simply grasping for any good-sounding tale that comes along?

Here are four suggestions:

1. To be a strategic storyteller, be a strategic organization.

Many organizations fail to pause from the daily grind to take a long look at their mission, identity, goals, and measurable impact. Want to decide which stories to tell? Start by making sure your strategic plan is up to date. The first step in strategic storytelling is knowing where your organization is headed and why, and whose support you’ll need to reach your destination. The stories you choose should be those that move you closer to your most important goals by moving others to lend their support. And remember, during the planning process, stories are bound to surface. Don’t lose them.

2. It’s not about you.

That’s another way of saying, choose stories about “them” — constituents, donors, volunteers, partners. One of the ways people decide what to do in a given situation is to ask what would individuals “like me” do? Research tells us we are not purely self-interested actors. We often want to know not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for my group. (See the terrific book, “Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.) Select and tell stories that feature members of the groups you want to engage. Help your audience connect to what their peers believe or do relative to your organization.

3. It’s all about you.

That’s right, it’s not about you, except when it is! That means knowing “who” you are as an organization — your identity or brand. What makes you distinct among organizations similar to you and what makes you relevant to the people who matter to your success? Strategic storytelling means selecting stories that are consistent with who you are and how you want others to experience your organization. What do you stand for or promise to your stakeholders? Be clear about this, deliver on your promise, and tell the stories of people who’ve benefited from their experience of you.

4. Be real.

No organization is perfect. Making mistakes comes with the territory. More important is how you have responded to your mistakes. What are the stories that don’t have happy endings in your organization? Don’t be afraid to tell them from time to time. It will build trust and help others learn from your mistakes. And who knows how many happy endings will follow from there?

- Rich Bruer, Portland, OR

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Sharing the Love

“Donor”? “Member”? How about “BFF”?

Many nonprofits struggle with how to describe their supporters: Members? Donors? Something else? In the strictest sense, “members” can only be part of a “membership” organization, which is defined by that group’s bylaws. And as they say on those AmEx commercials, “Membership has its privileges.” In other words, if someone is going to commmit to becoming a “member,” they have the right to expect benefits, like a members-only web page, a members-only event or newsletter, the right to vote for the board. That sort of thing.

Bow, box and chocolatesBut that’s just the legal and official definition of “member” and the meaning of “membership” as applied to organizations. The real world has at least fifty shades of nuance, particularly when it comes to fundraising. So when you’re trying to think expensively, why not think expansively? The idea of “membership” gives many donors a greater sense of connection to and ownership of a nonprofit organization, in a way that “donor” or “supporter” does not. “I’m a member” means “I belong,” “I’m part of the Cool Kids Club,” and “I own this.” Those are important sentiments to nurture – particularly because deeper connection increases the likelihood of deeper financial support.

But there’s a hitch: some groups have noticed that fewer people these days seem to be motivated by “paying dues.” The renewal letter that says “it’s time to renew your dues” may be very, um, yesterday. So what’s today’s version?

If a fundraising program is aimed at connecting as many people as possible to your work, and building community ownership in your success, then words that create connection are important. Some organizations are concluding that anyone who gives any amount of money (even a business that donates a boat trip to the silent auction) will be a considered a “member.” Some types of members – major donors, for example – require extra effort beyond the methods used to bring in and renew other members.

Box of chocolates, anyone?

- Allison Handler, Portland, OR

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Guidebook helps land trusts navigate problem easements

Like many other land trusts, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) has its share of problem easements. One of six land trusts that participated in the Easement Revitalization Initiative, NJCF allowed Solid Ground’s national conservation team to rummage around through the details of several troubled easements that the organization held, in order to better understand the issues and possible solutions.

Sponsored by Open Space Institute (OSI), the Easement Revitalization Initiative brought together legal analysis and practical perspectives from land trust practitioners to understand the types of easement problems that groups encounter, and potential ways to resolve or manage them. The fourteen-month process resulted in the Easement Revitalization Guidebook, which provides a pathway for land trusts to work through problem easements.

The Guidebook  provides a way for groups to categorize troubled easements. For example, is the problem vague or conflicting language? Is it missing documentation in the file? Is it compromised conservation value? The nature of the problem suggests different solutions.

NJCF executive director Michele Byers admits that the process can be overwhelming. But, she says, it’s also clarifying: “After going through the easement revitalization process, we realized that extinguishment is off the table. Even if it looks like common sense it would have such a large negative impact to the state.”

The bottom line, according to Michele, is that she’s “relieved that we were not the only ones without answers to everything about our problem easements. We know we can be creative with solutions.”

Indeed! The Guidebook  encourages land trusts to align clear, disciplined conservation with creative, engaging landowner relationships to make problems easements better – and the conservation community just a little bit stronger.

- Bill Long, Helena, MT

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We are adding to our team!

We are looking for candidates who will bring diversity to our team…

along with solid professional skills, passion, and a positive outlook.

Consultant – The Consultant plays a key role on the Solid Ground Consulting team, providing organizational development and strategic counsel to clients in all service areas. In addition, the Consultant plays a role in the marketing and business development activities of the firm.

  • At least five years background in organizational development and strategy
  • Strong preference for direct professional experience with nonprofit and public agencies, especially in positions of leadership
  • Consulting experience preferred
  • Demonstrated excellence in communication and writing

Senior Consultant – The senior consultant needs deep experience in organizational development consulting. We are looking for a seasoned consultant with an established client base.

  • Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Development, or related field; Master’s degree preferred
  • Advanced proficiency in organizational development and/or strategic planning
  • Consulting experience

Contact us at Contact for more information.

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Lowcountry: Vision without Hallucination

There is a difference between vision and hallucination.

Many groups talk about vision and consider what they’d like to influence in the future. But few groups really make their vision the centerpiece of their work today.

Authentic Conversations

Perhaps you need to meet one of our favorite clients: the Lowcountry Open Land Trust. This group has been working to protect the beauty of the Lowcountry of South Carolina for several decades. And Solid Ground worked with them over the last year as the group took that commitment to a new level.

As part of their strategic planning process, the group engaged community members in an authentic conversation about what they want to see for their Lowcountry home. To do this, the land trust:

  • Held listening sessions with key supporters and community leaders to get their suggestions.
  • Hosted a dedicated Business Leader Breakfast to specifically engage those focused on key business and economic development issues.
  • Converted their annual meeting from a passive program to an active conversation, with more than 100 supporters describing what they want for the future of their community.
  • Invited the community to an open forum at the local library that attracted more than 120 community members who care about the special places of the region but who had not yet had a voice in what should happen. The meeting was distinctive because it brought in a mix of ages and interests, and wasn’t limited to hearing from or speaking to “the choir.”

Hearing Voices

In addition, the land trust sat down with people throughout the community to hear the voices that care about the places the trust is working to protect. A wide variety of caring people – old and young, school children and farmers and business leaders and parents – all shared their vision of the Lowcountry. On tape.

The results of this investment, made over most of a year, are extraordinary. The land trust invested in capturing this vision in both a brochure and a video called the “Soul of the Lowcountry”. These results are wonderful examples of taking an idea and making the most of it.

The land trust used this information to shape their strategic plan, and now have a plan that is both aspirational and realistic. It conveys what the community wants and what the land trust believes it can do. This is planning at its finest.

Lessons Learned

Some of the great lessons that emerged from this project:

  • Make your engagement authentic. If you want people’s opinion, ask them. And then listen. Don’t spend most of your time talking to them.
  • Use the conversations you already have to make the most of them. Annual meetings are notoriously boring. Think about what else you’re already doing that can become opportunities to listen. If we take the time to engage those who show up – whenever or wherever that may be – everybody gets more out of it. Our supporters deserve to have input and to be heard. And our organizations are the richer for it.
  • Reach beyond your base. Every group needs to prove their relevance to the broader community. Take the time to reach out to those who could care if you engage them in a true exchange of ideas and opinions. Don’t be afraid to hear difficult things. Clearer levels of disagreement may appear – and so will greater degrees of respect, even support.

Share your results. Hearing what people have to say is the first step. Sharing what you’ve heard is the next. People want to know that you’ve heard what they’ve said. They also want to know what others have said. And by the way, this can be extremely useful information to support your fundraising efforts.

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New name, offices and website – oh my!

Decisions Decisions is now Solid Ground Consulting

Solid Ground Consulting has been the name we’ve long used for our national conservation team and land trust practice area. We’ve always received great response to it. As we started to rethink our firm’s identity, it just felt right to call the whole of our business “Solid Ground.” So we bid a warm farewell to our business name of many years, Decisions Decisions, and embrace our new identity: Solid Ground Consulting.

We’ve retooled, redesigned and reconfigured. With our new identity comes a deepened commitment to organizations that operate with a triple bottom line – people and profit and planet. And you may notice our new logo and website (yes, you’re on it now!).

If that weren’t enough, after Oct. 6, 2012 we’ll be in new offices. We outgrew our old space, so you’ll find us now on the Fourth Floor of the historic Weatherly Building at 516 SE Morrison, Portland, Ore. Stop by and check out our great downtown views. And yes, Shayna, the Office Dog, will still be there to greet you. Some things you just don’t change.

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Solid Ground team active at Rally 2012

Big topics: easement revitalization and mergers

Solid Ground team members are presenting several interactive sessions at Rally 2012, the National Land Conservation Conference in Salt Lake City Sept. 29-Oct. 2. Attendees will learn the latest on how to deal with problem easements during our 90-minute workshop, “Why Wait for a Problem to Show Up? Easement Revitalization 101.” We go deeper into the issues during our half-day seminar on the Easement Revitalization Initiative. And we’ll be providing resources on collaborations and mergers in the session, “The M-word: Merger.”

Conference goers will also find us hanging at Table 19 in the Exhibitor Hall or wandering around with a banjo looking for a jam session. (Well, one of us will have a banjo.)

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Strategies for easement revitalization

‘Easement Revitalization Guidebook’ now available

With the sponsorship of the Open Space Institute, Solid Ground Consulting has researched, developed and tested strategies and tools that land trusts can use to “revitalize” their easements and make them suitable for prime time.

We’re happy to report the “Easement Revitalization Guidebook” is now available. Get in touch and we’ll make sure you get a copy.

Problem easements – those with questionable conservation value, vague or conflicting language in the easement document, or transactional problems – lurk in the portfolios of nearly all land trusts. They’re difficult to monitor and enforce, and sometimes the conservation benefit doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Many groups have chosen to ignore potential problems posed by these easements until some event – such as a high-profile violation, a proposed merger with another land trust or an accreditation application – brings them to the fore. Then the land trust is forced to decide what to do with them.

How land trusts handle early cases of problem easements may set precedents that ripple through all of the land trusts in the country. If the conservation community allows these easements to be inappropriately extinguished or ignored, they risk losing the confidence of the general public, legislators and the IRS. On the other hand, trying to steward bad easements may drain resources without serving any significant conservation value.

The “Easement Revitalization Guidebook” helps land trusts successfully manage problem easements.

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Shine A Light: transforming the lives of street kids

Brazil-based nonprofit turns to Decisions Decisions

D2 helped Brazil-based, Shine A Light, evaluate their work teaching digital media to marginalized children.  When the leaders of the nonprofit Shine A Light wanted to evaluate their work over the past 10 years, Decisions Decisions helped them design an evaluation process and present their findings.

Shine A Light has created a network of more than 300 nonprofits in 49 cities in 16 countries throughout Central and South America that work with street kids.  Through the network, groups collaborate and share knowledge with their peers.  Shine A Light has conducted 19 major projects with some of the best of these organizations over the past decade.  Its digital media programs – film, music, design, and literature – have made it possible for street kids to share their knowledge and inspiration with other organizations and activists.  Shine A Light wanted to more deeply understand its impact on these kids.

During its evaluation, Shine A Light learned that its programs have had transformational impacts on the children who participated.  Many of them are now making a living as artists or serving as arts educators. Two-thirds became leaders in their communities.  Thirty-eight percent have gone on to college – a higher percentage than their peers in the United States.  A Bolivian leader described it this way: “Poor kids have to face a million brutal hierarchies.  So when they get a real chance to practice democracy, they shine.”

A surprising – and unintended – result of Shine A Light’s work is the impact that the organization has had on the nonprofits in the collaborative network.  Because of Shine A Light, significant percentages of collaborating nonprofits received new funding, expanded their services, and changed public policy.

A Brazilian program director said it well: “You catch these kids at their best, as they show what they want to be.  And then years later, at a tough time, they look at these films, or hear the music, and it reminds them.  Film is like a commitment to yourself, and when there are so many temptations of drugs and gangs all around, that’s important.”

We were excited to partner with Shine A Light and to support their incredibly important work.  Want to learn more?  Check out www.shinealight.org.  You can read their evaluation at http://www.shinealight.org/Texts/Evaluation2011.pdf

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The Retirement Bomb

How to plan for the exodus

The Retirement Boom. The impact of an aging workforce is being felt throughout the country in all sectors. The exodus of the baby boomer generation from the nonprofit sector will have a dramatic impact on many organizations at both the board and staff level. Leadership transitions occur for any number of reasons, planned and unplanned.  This time can be a powerful opportunity to strengthen the organization if a thoughtful plan is in place. Executive transitions are transformational, but when poorly managed, they often bring on a crisis leading to decreased effectiveness and sometimes even organizational failure. Jim Morris, our Manager for the Sustainable Leadership Practice, was recently interviewed by Saving Land Magazine in an article titled “The Retirement Bomb.” In the article, Jim outlines a strategy for not only dealing with these transitions, but how to plan for them as well.

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