When nonprofit and community leaders share our progress in creating healthy community change, we use data and stories as our primary tools. We rely on data to track changes, discover trends and make comparisons. We rely on stories to spark compassion, illuminate details and provide context. However, though both are vital for effective communication, storytelling hasn’t always been planned for as intentionally.
Which is understandable, because healthy community change is complex and occasionally messy work. Navigating that work while simultaneously listening deeply to others takes a lot of time. Crafting narratives from what you’ve heard in order to unearth lessons, bridge understanding gaps and translate across jargon takes more time. It’s time well invested, though, because stories do more than communicate our progress and generate support for our work; storytelling advances the work itself.
For example, in the fall of 2015, Active Living By Design (ALBD) launched a project to learn more about the sustainability of community-led, place-based change by asking former ALBD-assisted grantees—who we affectionately call “ALBD alumni”—to share their stories with us. Although the grant initiatives Active Living by Design, Healthy Eating by Design and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities had all ended, we wanted to understand how the work had evolved since then.
Through emails, surveys and good-old-fashioned phone calls, 54 local community leaders shared their stories with us. We heard from many folks that the long-term, place-based nature of these grants allowed them to authentically invest in residents’ leadership capacity. We learned that many community partnerships, based on what they’ve learned over the years, have begun to expand their focus beyond healthy eating and active living to the broader social determinants of health.
Those stories are now helping ALBD improve how we approach our work. We are deepening our expertise to better support healthy community funders and are improving resources and tools that we share with the field. In the coming months, we’ll also be sharing more details about how communities have found innovative solutions to healthy community change, so stay tuned. Most importantly, our alumni’s stories remind us, yet again, why this work is so important and so urgent.
Considering how much we’ve learned from integrating storytelling into our work, we’d like to share some of the practices and resources that helped us along the way:
Compelling stories emerge from trusting relationships, and it’s important to honor people’s effort and time. This can include things like: providing ample time for them to provide feedback about the story you’re telling; offering your time and support to them in return; and thinking about ways the story could be useful for them within their local context.
For smaller nonprofits and resource-limited community leaders, the prospect of integrating storytelling practices can seem daunting, but a few resources can help you get started:
Finally, we’ve tried to remind ourselves that things don’t have to be perfect the first time. It may take a while to find the right balance between storytelling and more pressing work, and there will likely be multiple edits to story drafts before they emerge as compelling narratives. And that’s okay! After all, getting started is the hardest part
In our work with community leaders, one request is most common: what are others doing? People want to be inspired, motivated and informed and to feel that they aren’t alone in this work. That’s why ALBD will continue our commitment, throughout 2016 and beyond, to finding stories, sharing them and, most importantly, helping others learn from them.