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Reflection Through Narrative

How international organizations gain insight, innovation, and internal alignment through story.

Most international organizations today recognize that sharing stories externally about their work is a highly effective tool for increasing visibility, reaching advocacy targets, and raising funds. But sharing stories internally, and between grantmakers, grantees, and other program beneficiaries can also serve as a powerful insight-generating, problem-solving, and decision-making device.

International organizations face a myriad of challenges, including different and often rapidly changing political systems in the countries where they operate; diverse staff working across different languages, cultures, and time zones; and security and technical challenges in low-resource settings. Storytelling is particularly well suited to managing these complexities, as it is a democratic tool for clarifying uncertainty. Stories make sense of complexity and surface important details.

In 2012, for example, when the landscape of civil and political rights in Burma began to shift, the human rights and development organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS) invited grantees to share stories about how they and others had built a grassroots human rights movement over the years.

This opportunity for deep and detailed reflection—about how, why, and when activities occurred—was more than just a welcome change from typical donor-grantee conversations; it prompted some of AJWS’s grantees to gain new insights about their work. Two of the groups, for instance, realized that their efforts to influence political leaders during ceasefire negotiations were new—previously there had been little civil society participation or pressure—and that this change was a result of the many years they had spent educating and organizing communities.

This story-sharing process was part of AJWS’s broader monitoring and evaluation of its work in Burma and other countries, in which the organization analyzed outcomes of its work supporting human rights movements (such as whether grassroots groups formed stronger alliances with one another) to guide future strategy. Elyse (co-author of this post) elicited stories from AJWS to illustrate and provide context to the data—grounding it in a human, emotional dimension—and then wove these stories together into a case study.

The study provided valuable insight as the organization looked to publicize its work and expand its grantmaking in Burma. “The report gave us the strength to say, ‘We’ve been here for ten years,’” says Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS.

A case study has the power to “focus the attention of anyone inside as well as outside the organization,” says Messinger. “When you’re doing the work, you don’t always see the trajectory at the larger level. Work needs to get done every day; money needs to be appropriated. You hear small anecdotes, but to seriously delve in and say, ‘This is where we started, and this is where we are today,’ validates, supports, and encourages the work.”

Stories have unique power, beyond their components. The individual narrative elements of stories (protagonist, conflict, resolution, setting, action) combine to equal a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, when reviewing a large number of stories, the repetition of these elements, and the patterns and connections between them (patterns of both coherence and dissonance), very often yield insight and deeper meaning.

This was the case for the Arcus Foundation, a global foundation advancing pressing social justice and conservation issues. Arcus sought to explore the experiences of grantees mobilizing against an anti-homosexuality bill introduced in the Ugandan parliament. Thaler (co-author of this post) facilitated a layered story-sharing session, in which 20 participants were prompted to recall, examine, and make sense of their experiences.

Despite the multiplicity of individual stories, the exercise of developing a collective narrative helped surface certain recurrent themes, challenges, characters, and positive and negative practices. The result was an inventory of the grantees’ collective knowledge and resources, mapped against a timeline of events during the crisis. The insight was that relationships developed a decade earlier—though they focused on an entirely different program area—functioned as pivotal connections and crucial networks for mobilization. This program was part of a larger effort to assist grantees in understanding their overall strategies, goals, and assessments. It contributed to the foundation’s understanding of movement building and the assessment of progress, especially in rapidly changing, complex situations.

Encouraging the sharing of stories often results in insight, innovation, greater internal alignment, and more effective targeting of resources. And helping staff become better at sharing, eliciting, and listening to stories is likely to result in their hearing more stories from colleagues, grantees, beneficiaries, and other partners. Staff can then thoughtfully recognize and explore commonalities and act on the knowledge gleaned through those stories. Such narrative leadership will contribute considerable value to the strategic focus and programmatic effectiveness of any organization.

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