Story can be used like any other marketing tool. It creates and presents an image that you want others to see. But story has a secret sauce. It’s more than just a marketing tool; it’s a way of standing out amongst the crowd. In particular, the power of story is in presenting a window into your organization that is authentic and meaningful. Through story, people can get an accurate picture of your organization that distills down the best of why it is you exist while communicating the energy and ideals you hold about the future. Story can help make sure that every time you open your mouth, something inspiring and relevant comes out.

This is the first of a multi-part series on finding and exploring your organizational story. It comes out of work I’ve done with organizations large & small who are struggling to communicate what they’re about. Story helps to create clarity in the area of mission and purpose, and creates meaning as you communicate to others. My goal in this series is to give you an in-depth understanding of what your organizational story is and some tools on how to find it.

We’re going to look at the four or five stories that every organization lives by. Whether you have these explicitly defined or not, these stories already exist. They are latent within the DNA of your organization, and shape every interaction you have internally and externally.

Here are the five stories:

  1. Genesis story (where you came from and why)
  2. Future story, or the story of who you serve. You can also think of this as your obituary (what the world would look like if your organization was no longer needed or if you fail in your mission)
  3. Staff story (what it’s like to serve from the inside)
  4. Confession story (when your organization makes a mistake)
  5. Donor/customer story

Of these, the first two are the most foundational. They shape the need into which your organization fits. They shape the themes – the realities of the world which you were born out of and, ostensibly, what you stand for and against. They paint a picture of what will happen if you do not act, and who it is that you love so that these things will not happen to them.

I short, they answer three critical questions: “Why?”, “Who is this for?”, and “What is the gap in their world?”

To write your genesis story, start from the beginning. If you are the founder (or if the founder is still living) start by talking about influences in your life before the organization or cause was a twinkle in your eye. What is it that shaped you? What struggles did you face that made you sensitive to these issues? Importantly, what were some of your failures and missteps as a younger person that led you away from this path? How did you overcome them?

Then move into the founding of your organization. Rather than a series of events, think of the story as falling in love. What moments stand out? Who are the characters? What are their desires? What did you admire about them, or what struck you as particularly good in them? As you’re writing this out, think of the sights and sounds and smells. Look into the eyes of the people you remember and see what they care about. What is it that’s affecting them? What is the injustice or problem that moved you, made you angry or roused your sense of justice? Why do they need help, and what can be done about it? Was there an “aha” moment? How did you respond in that moment when everything became clear for you?

When you’re done remembering, ask yourself the questions “Why?”. What belief do you have that caused you to respond to these people, this issue, at this time? What core belief about the world was roused enough that you were moved into action? If you’re not emotional at this point, try looking more closely at your memories. Go through old journals or reminisce with some of the people who were there. You’re looking for the emotional centre of why it is you got involved, and this is very often a love for someone who is being harmed. Look into the lives of the people you serve and find the moment that moved you. This is your genesis story.

The genesis story forms your roots. Even if your mission has changed since this time, it sets the stage for all that comes after. It lays out the beliefs that underpin your concern for those you serve, and the actions you take to help them to make a better world. Writing it down will help you shape and understand how you communicate what you’re about to the world.

Tune in next time for the second edition, where we’ll look at the story you want to write about the future.

Trevor Meier
Trevor Meier the founder & principal at Storyspark, a storytelling firm for non-profits.