Good storytelling passes the test of time

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. “
Hannah Arendt

Are you like me?  Do you regularly scan your email with an eye to what’s important, check all “unread” messages and end up sending 137 emails to the trash?

Is your inbox stuffed with junk like this?

Subject:  Smart women who know their place

Barbara Walters, of 20/20, did a story on gender roles in Kabul Afghanistan, several years before the Afghan conflict. She noted women customarily walked five paces behind their husbands.

She recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands. Despite the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women are happy to maintain the old custom.

Ms. Walters approached one of the Afghan women and asked, ‘Why do you now seem happy with an old custom that you once tried so desperately to change?’

The woman looked Ms. Walters straight in the eyes and, without hesitation, said

‘Land Mines.’

‘No matter what language you speak or where you go:   BEHIND EVERY MAN, THERE IS ONE SMART WOMAN!

Terrific story, right?

One small problem.  It’s not true.  A quick check on tells you that this one is, like so many tales making the Internet rounds, false.  In fact, this story has been around in various incarnations for years, seemingly beginning in the early 60’s when the story starred the Burmese who “were said to be reacting to the threat of leftover WWII mines.”

I should tell you, too, that this came in via a dearly beloved girlfriend back home in Michigan.  Gosh I haven’t seen her in over ten years and, while I’m grateful to know that she’s thinking of me (I get this kind of email from her an average of twice a week), I’d really love to hear how her kids are doing, what she’s been up to, how her hubby  is doing ….   Know what I mean?

There are a couple of take-aways from this story though.

Take the time to reach out and truly communicate with your friends … er, donors regularly.

Lesson #two?  A terrific story, even one that’s false, stands the test of time.  Case in point:  The destruction of a marvelous nonprofit organization, ACORN, by the right wing media through the use of creative – and false – storytelling.

And guess what?  Integrating storytelling into your foundation grant proposals is a sure way of improving your funded rate.

As ya’all know, I worked for a grant-making foundation for more years than I care to remember.  I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of grant proposals.  But I do remember one nonprofit organization in particular.  Every time a proposal from this organization arrived in the mail everyone – from the president to the office manager – was vying to read it.  In fact, usually copies were made so all could enjoy.

What made the difference between this organization’s grant proposal and the countless others?


Every proposal featured a new story – or several – on the organization’s clients, written in such an engaging way that the reader couldn’t help but be drawn in.  After funding this lovely organization for several consecutive years it actually pained the foundation to tell the group that they needed to take a year off.

How are you telling your organization’s story?  Are you making it a practice to capture the stories that enchant your donors?  Remember, too, that good storytelling doesn’t consist of one story, it consists of many.  Your staff has stories, your donors have stories, your founder has stories and your clients have stories.  Heck, your clients’ family have stories.  Share them!

One Response to “Good storytelling passes the test of time”

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