I rely heavily on storytelling when writing grant proposals. There is no better way to put across the organization's impact on their clients. This story, from a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy, proves that storytelling is a skill that everyone can use:
Story TimeFoundation leaders spin tales from their families' lives as a way to share values and traditions
By Darlene M. Siska
As a boy, William C. Graustein heard plenty of family stories -- up-by-your-bootstrap, American success tales about his father, aunts, and uncles. Children of a German immigrant dairyman, they were encouraged to use their education to imagine and create successful careers for themselves. As a result, education transformed their lives. That generation included a Harvard-trained lawyer who headed the International Paper Company, a Harvard mathematics professor, two Harvard Ph.D.'s in natural sciences, and a New Hampshire state senator.
What Mr. Graustein didn't know until later in life was how those stories would help provide him with direction and purpose when the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund (named for his uncle) increased its endowment hundredfold, to $50-million in 1993, after his mother died and her assets were added to the foundation's total.
Rather then continuing to simply write checks to the same charities his late father had, Mr. Graustein, now a trustee, decided to develop a giving strategy for the Hamden, Conn., fund that focused on education, and hired a consultant to help develop it. While traveling with the consultant to talk to education experts, Mr. Graustein says, "We asked what they cared about. They shared stories about their passions and life's work."
He began to notice similarities and differences between the educators' tales and those of his family. He started to understand his own stories differently. "My family stories became fables with a moral," he says. "I began to hear how the world could change."
As a result of honing the meaning of his family stories, Mr. Graustein and the rest of the trustees decided to reconfigure the fund's new mission. Where it once spread its efforts among a variety of charitable causes, it now puts a particular emphasis on engaging children younger than 8 in education.
Today, Mr. Graustein tells his family's stories in the foundation's annual reports, to help grantees and others better understand the principles that drive the fund's work. The fund's staff members use storytelling when meeting with grantees -- for example, they might start off by telling an anecdote about their own experience, which may help prompt a charity's clients to tell their own personal tales and offer ideas that then help shape a group's programs. Mr. Graustein says he even judged candidates for the fund's executive director job in part on their respect for the value of storytelling.
"It's hard to overstate how significant storytelling is to me because it provoked a major career change," says Mr. Graustein, who, in 1997, left a 25-year career as a geophysicist at Yale University to focus on philanthropic work.
Mr. Graustein's family foundation is far from the only one to incorporate storytelling in its work.
Although he cannot point to data that show the scope of storytelling as a new trend among family grant makers, "there are certainly more families doing this now than in the past," says Jason C. Born, senior program officer in the Boston office of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Several consultants, he notes, now specifically help family grant makers with storytelling.
Family stories are being recounted orally at board meetings and retreats, and also documented in books, on tape, and on videotape. The tales are being used to give recognition to and celebrate a family's history, to shape grant-making programs, to train the next generation of board members, and to pass on philanthropic values that help keep family members involved -- a major challenge for such organizations.
As families grow more geographically dispersed, "sometimes family stories are all that members of a family foundation have in common," says Deanne Stone, a writer and research associate at Lansberg Gersick & Associates, a consulting firm in New Haven, Conn., that helps families with business and philanthropic enterprises.
Charles Hamilton, executive director of the Clark Foundation, in New York, and editor of Living the Legacy: The Values of a Family's Philanthropy Across Generations (National Center for Family Philanthropy, 2001, $45), says family grant makers may latch on to storytelling because "there's not only an incredible thirst by a family to understand its legacy and values, but so many family foundations are rather informal and don't have -- or may even dislike -- the idea of formal mechanisms. Things like strategic plans and vision statements are counter to their culture."
Also, says Mr. Hamilton, storytelling can be an easy way to deal with big current issues. Family foundations must concern themselves with money and family dynamics, he says, and "since no one wants to talk about values or money directly, stories allow them to talk about those things without someone getting hit over the head with a big 'should.'"
Family tales can also be used to spur action among trustees, says Catherine Conant, a professional storyteller in Middletown, Conn., who has coached charities and foundations on using storytelling in their work.
"Assets and numbers of grants made may not persuade a person to act," she says. "If I were someone who didn't understand why my grandparents created a foundation, I may not act. But for me to hear, 'Our grandparents lived during the Holocaust, and by sheer force and will they survived it. But they were painfully aware that others were obliterated, so they created a foundation to help' -- that provides a deeper understanding and an incentive to act. It's something to pin my actions on to."
Consultants who work with family foundations say that members of every generation -- not simply the older relatives -- must be able to tell their stories. And, Ms. Conant cautions, "Storytelling shouldn't be used to manipulate others or moralize. No one person should insist they and only they have the truth. No one likes being preached to."
Richard Woo, chief executive officer of the Russell Family Foundation, in Gig Harbor, Wash., says the foundation began using storytelling four years ago, when it was working to establish its culture. The family, which made its wealth in investment services, told tales -- illustrated by family photos -- at board meetings to help identify its values.
Today, he says, it has evolved into a ritual at every board meeting, and a tool integrated by trustees into several of the grant maker's activities. Every board meeting, Mr. Woo says, starts with "time for reflection, where members may share a poem or story or metaphor or allegory." A lit candle at every board gathering represents the trustees' predecessors, he says, "the people whose spirits and values drive the foundation's activities today."
Susan Price, managing director of family foundation services at the Council on Foundations, an association of grant makers in Washington, looks for storytelling to be used more often in the coming years.
"We are seeing more family foundations, as they mature, having to train their next generation to come on board," she says. "One way they are doing that is to share family stories and their values and legacies in videos and oral histories."
Rebecca Richards, 29, a lawyer in New York and a trustee of the Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation, in Tulsa, Okla., which was founded by her grandparents, grew up listening to her family's lore.
"We're a Jewish family in Oklahoma, where there is not a huge Jewish community," she says. "My grandmother grew up in a small town in Texas, where there also weren't a lot of Jewish people. She and others held their daily lives together through family stories that shared lessons and experiences, and provided a connection to their roots and a larger community not visible in their own."
In January, Ms. Richards participated in a workshop with 21/64, a nonprofit consulting division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, in New York, aimed at helping young trustees learn how to express their values through grant making. At the workshop, she learned that stories not only revealed her family's history, but also help her as she works out her role as a trustee.
"Stories tell of morals and values, but are also useful in helping us figure out what our ideals and giving priorities are," Ms. Richards says. By examining family stories and their values, she has realized that "my grandparents do good works as a way to influence how others might act, not to get recognition for themselves."
With three generations on the Zarrow foundation board, each offers different types of tales. Her grandparents will bring their family stories to board meetings, while she will recount an anecdote of her own. "I'll say, 'Here's what is going on in my life and I think we should look at this,'" she says. "Using stories is comfortable, and not being 'talked at.' If you want to engage people, it's a way of everyone being part of the same conversation."
Sharna Goldseker, special-project manager at 21/64, conducts storytelling workshops for current and prospective foundation-board members ages 18 to 28. In the workshops, Ms. Goldseker invites young people to tell their stories. To help prime the pump, she asks participants to create a timeline of their family events and the decisions made in the foundation. Such activities help young people reconcile their ancestors' values with their own.
For example, Ms. Goldseker says, "Say that someone's grandparents lived in an era with a high level of patriotism and decided to base scholarships on that. Rather than thinking, 'Why did my grandparents want to give scholarships for this?,' they may come to understand why their grandparents developed the values they did and figure out how they can align their giving with that."
A Bigger Audience
Some family foundations, such as the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, incorporate storytelling into their work with grantees and grant seekers. "When the fund's staff are out in the community, they can listen to the stories of people they are working with and think, 'I don't have to judge this completely objectively; I can use my own experience as a legitimate way to understand what is going on," says Mr. Graustein. "It gives them more freedom to engage with the community at the place where the communities are, rather than at our level, where we think about program decisions."
Storytelling allows a fund's staff members to communicate more deeply with the community they serve than they might be able to otherwise, he says.
"Story works at a very different level than analytical thinking," he says. "We're schooled to think analytically, but story communicates at a level that is much more powerful at building things like trust and imagination."
In one of the grant makers' major efforts, the Discovery Initiative, 49 cities and towns across Connecticut are working with the fund to improve education for children younger than 8.
"We didn't send out a request for proposals to create the program," says David M. Nee, the Graustein fund's executive director.
Instead, he says, "the fund met with mayors, superintendents, and others and listened to their stories. Part of being a story teller is being a listener. We listen very carefully. It grows out of a sense that none of us is smarter than the whole of us."
Storytelling has led to a deeper relationship between the grant maker and at least one of its grantees, All Our Kin, a charity in New Haven, Conn., that educates parents and expands children's access to early care and education. The Graustein fund gave All Our Kin a $15,000 grant in 2000, says Jessica Sager, the group's executive director, and she recalls how Mr. Graustein came to visit two years later to see about offering further support. He met with participants in an All Our Kin program that helps parents receiving welfare learn to become professional child-care providers, and broke the ice by telling personal stories.
"It was amazing," she recalls. "He sat down with participants in our program and they started a dialogue together."
Mr. Graustein has made subsequent contributions to her group as a private donor, she says, and she notes that All Our Kin's ties to the fund are closer than those it maintains with other foundations. "Our relationships with other grant makers is mostly conducted through paper," she says.
Because of Mr. Graustein's example, Ms. Sager says, she has begun using storytelling within her group.
"It's for these women who don't get listened to all that often," she says. "It is an incredible way to capture their experiences, for them to listen to each other and to learn of their commonalities."
Ms. Sager also now uses the technique in All Our Kin's annual newsletter to its supporters. "We told the story of one of our participants as a way to express why we're important to the community, rather than to use numbers," she says.
Although Mr. Graustein has published some stories from community members, he says that grantees and others are not forced to tell their stories to the fund's representatives.
He realizes that storytelling does not always come easily for grantees because of the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between grant makers and beneficiaries. Nonprofit organizations seeking money may be hesitant to reveal too much out of concern it could put off a foundation official.
Keeping Motives Pure
The entire nonprofit world is in the business of storytelling, says Mr. Woo of the Russell Family Foundation.
"A nonprofit staff person's task is to interpret and tell a story the best he or she can in the form of a grant proposal, and in turn, the foundation staffers present that proposal to the board," he says. "The best story can be told when members of a community can tell its story directly to the board. There's a lot of alignment between the value and power of storytelling and grant making."
To begin using storytelling as a tool, Ms. Conant says, the top leaders of the foundation have to set an example by telling their own stories, perhaps starting by setting time aside at an annual retreat. But ulterior motives can't be at play, such as wanting underlings to tell stories so that they will reveal their weaknesses, she says.
"If you take a cork off the barrel, you need to understand that your motives are clear and that family members, staffers, and others are treated with respect," she says. "Otherwise it's just asking them to put on rubber noses and run around."
Copyright © 2005 The Chronicle of Philanthropy