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6 min Read
October 7, 2020

The power of narrative change for nonprofits

Many nonprofits, political groups, and movements are investing in narrative change as a strategy to build power and shape the conversation around their work. 

Scholarship around narratives, cognitive framing, and strategic storytelling is not new, but it wasn’t until recently that narrative change has become a dedicated field of practice within social change spaces. Groups like Narrative Initiative, Frameworks, Reframe, The Opportunity Agenda, and many others have played a significant role in growing this evolving discipline. 

This piece introduces some of the components of narrative work that I’ve learned from these organizations and others. To keep learning and building your own understanding of these topics, check out the links and resources embedded in this post. 

The relationship between stories and narratives 

In a story, something happens to someone or something. A parent goes back to college and graduates. A family’s house is foreclosed. A child is disciplined by their teacher. An athlete takes a knee during the national anthem. A single story—and how that story is framed—can reflect and reinforce beliefs, values, norms, and ideas. 

Narratives, on the other hand, are patterns or systems of stories. Narratives run much deeper and are built over time—story layered on top of story—ultimately reinforcing central or dominant beliefs, ideas, and meaning in a culture. The Narrative Initiative’s report, “Toward New Gravity: Charting a Course for the Narrative Initiative offers a helpful metaphor to explain the relationship between narratives and stories. “What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.”

“The American Dream” is one of the most ubiquitous narratives in American culture. This narrative—that in America everyone has an opportunity to achieve their dreams if they work hard enough—is deeply embedded into many realms of storytelling (history books, politics, films, museums, and so on). 

In fact, it’s an example of a narrative that’s so ingrained in American culture that it’s often classified by narrative strategists as a dominant narrative, deep narrative,  or a meta narrative. They’re ‘dominant’ because they are generated by and reinforce the dominant group’s power, and as Vu Le writes, namely white heteronormative cis-male able-bodied neuro-typical norms.

That’s the case with the American Dream narrative, which fails to acknowledge the systemic barriers and systems of oppressions in place which stifle opportunity and prosperity for people of color. Narrative Institute explains, “meta-narratives are ideas about people and society that shape our perceptions of the way things are and our preferences for the way things should be.” Their repetition and reinforcement tend to shape entrenched beliefs and uphold existing power dynamics.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared her perspective on the role of power in narratives and storytelling in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” by offering us, “How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” Because dominant narratives are so pervasive, without proactive action, power, and influence to dismantle them, they tend to stick around.

The power of narrative change

If narratives are patterns of stories, narrative change is the strategy of shifting the patterns embedded into the stories we tell. Why should nonprofits put effort into shifting the patterns in the stories they share? Because narratives influence how people think and feel about the issues that nonprofits tackle. And how people think and feel about the issues dictates if and how will people take action.

Nonprofits are all in the business of influencing how people think, feel, and act. The narratives embedded into a nonprofit’s communications can either advance or undermine their mission. It’s quite common that nonprofits—even those that espouse values of racial and economic justice—utilize racist and classist narratives that actually devalue the people at the heart of their mission.

Nonprofits have a big opportunity to identify the narratives that are barriers to mission impact and collective change and actively seek to address them, dismantle them, and offer alternative, more productive ones. As narrative strategist Ryan Senser puts it in Toward New Gravity, “Narrative is a strategy towards an end; a tool for restructuring the way people feel, think and respond to the world.”

Putting narrative change into action

Narrative change is a scalable practice that nonprofits can implement and embed into their communications work in small and big ways. Regardless of the size and scale of the work, here are some techniques that organizations focusing on narrative change will want to consider.

  • Monitor internally: A critical step towards changing narratives is identifying the narratives that you have been using in your own work. This should be an ongoing practice, not a one-time effort. Take a look at the content on your blog, read the messaging you use to describe your organization, watch videos you’ve produced, and skim your fundraising materials. What are the narratives—or patterns in the stories—that your organization is using? Are you reinforcing dominant narratives that run counter to your core values? Take this as an opportunity to involve your community in the process of narrative change. Ask staff and program participants about what narratives they want to see the organization emphasize and what they want to see you phase out.
  • Listen up: Through social and traditional media listening and tracking tools, nonprofits can monitor the conversations—and the narratives permeating those conversations—that intersect with your mission. Research and analysis of narratives entails measuring, analyzing and assessing narratives and narrative change campaigns. This can be done through a lighter, and less data-driven approach by simply following a few hashtags related to your mission, setting up some google alerts, and taking a bit of time weekly to examine and track the narratives being circulated. 
  • Partner and band together: A single nonprofit can be a force for narrative change, but partnerships with other organizations and movements can lead to more transformative change. Nonprofits can’t do the work of changing the narrative on the big problems they tackle solo—it requires coordinated action with partners and other communicators outside the organization. My colleague Hannah Thomas recently wrote a piece titled, “Messaging considerations for a movement.” She writes, “In my view, powerful movements are built by many, not by few. That means your nonprofit must collaborate with, include, and seek to understand others in order to create a story that will support a movement.” 
  • Build new narratives: Identifying the narratives you and your partners aspire to change comes next. Did you discover narratives that you or others are perpetuating that are in conflict with your mission and values? If you were to excise them from your own communications, what narratives would you replace them with? For example, say an organization dedicated to addressing poverty wants to counteract the dominant narrative of “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” which reflects a highly individualistic orientation towards success.  You’ll need a replacement or alternative narrative to take its place. Frameworks recommends building narratives that show the powerful role that our country’s systems play in hindering or creating economic opportunity.
  • Strategize: There are many ways to put new narratives into action. Narrative change encompasses naming the narratives you want to see rise to the top, and then disseminating them with the goal of adoption. Developing a strategy—goals, audiences, strategies, tactics, and communications channels—come into play here. Will your organization aim to make a splash by shifting a narrative through a community-centered media project like a documentary or podcast series? You can always start inside—rethinking the narratives embedded into your behind-the-scenes organizational materials as well as tackling existing brand messaging, publications, and blog content.

Narratives are around us all the time. Embedded in the stories we tell and content we consume, they’re powerful because they influence how we think, feel, and act. Because of their ubiquity, dominant narratives often become invisible—so entrenched within our culture and within ourselves that we don’t even question their existence or ability to change.

It’s up to organizations and individuals committed to change to undo the narratives that perpetuate a dominant worldview and put forward new ones that free us to see that a different future is possible.