Have a Retention Problem? Think About How You're Telling Your Story

Updated: Apr 27

When people ask me about my background in the nonprofit sector I have a quick elevator pitch I share:

I started fundraising in the world of politics and public advocacy, then worked in nonprofit media before leading the development department at a mental health agency. This story sums up my professional experience, but it leaves out my introduction to the nonprofit world as an outsider.

When we were in college, my wife got a job at a shelter for runaway and homeless youth that was run by a local nonprofit. For a psychology major and aspiring mental health professional, the job was her trial by fire…and oh, was there fire.

I’ve joked that she needs to write a book about the nearly 4 years she spent there. People would be shocked to hear about the number of times that she, at all of 5’ 2”, mediated fights or intervened in situations where residents and adults were escalated.

The work was rewarding and prepared her well for her eventual career, but as you can imagine, she had to see and experience some heartbreaking things.

Looking back on those days now, I have a new appreciation for one of their most pressing problems at the shelter: turnover. There were a lot of factors that influenced that, including burnout (not uncommon when you work with a disadvantaged population) and low pay. But another factor that flew under the radar was low morale related to a disconnect between management and frontline staff.

This disconnect was most prominent when management told donors the story of the shelter. In their telling of it, the shelter gave troubled kids an oasis, a place of safety, and stability.

The ending of the story was inferred: “and they all lived happily ever after.”

The staff wished that was the truth, but they knew the other side of that reality: the kids they served were forgotten by the system. Many of them “shelter hopped,” going from one facility to another until they aged out of the system, typically at age 21. After that, some went to adult shelters, and inevitably, many ended up incarcerated. Tragically, my wife knows of shelter residents who have since passed away.

It’s no surprise that this method of telling the story broke the spirits of staff who cared so deeply for the youth they served. They knew a shelter was a starting point for a larger, more effective intervention that didn’t exist. Presenting their work as a solution to a problem was a disservice to them and the residents.

Donor-Centric Storytelling Does Not Give the Full Picture

Management in this scenario followed the donor-centric model of storytelling. They shared a problem and presented the donors as the “hero,” helping a struggling population solve their problem. In this case, the donors provided the funds to create an intervention to solve the challenges of these youth.

Now, there are elements of truth in this story. The donor's actions were heroic, and the shelter was providing a vital service. Without it, outcomes would have been even worse, and more kids would have been in desperate situations.

But the story doesn’t end there. It’s oriented around the donor’s ego, and in so doing, leaves out the systemic issues that the youth still face. It does a disservice to the donor, the staff, and those the organization serves.

Community-Centric Storytelling Shifts the Perspective

A more effective approach for management would have been to tell the complete story. The donor was not the hero in the story, but they were a hero. The shelter was not a solution to a systemic problem, but it was an emergency service that made a tremendous impact.

It sets the organization up to tell a larger story: one about systemic inequity, long-term problems, and what the organization and its donors can do to build a system that both provides emergency services for youth and builds systems to care for them. It recognizes donors, staff, volunteers, management, and the community working together to actually solve problems.

Instead of leaving staff demoralized, framing the issue in this way would have created a sense of solidarity and a feeling that people had their backs. It also would have created a sense of hope that many of their residents would not be left in the cold when their time with them was over.

Beyond the staff impacts, this messaging would have been more effective for donors as well. We do our organizations a tremendous disservice when we think our job is only to make our donors feel good. Honest storytelling invites them into larger conversations. Sharing a story that is honest, direct, and grounded in a community’s reality invites a donor into a greater partnership.

Now is the Time to Change How We Tell Our Stories

The pandemic has opened people’s eyes to many of society’s systemic challenges. Donors want to partner with us in solving those problems.

Whether they’re giving a few dollars or a few million dollars, we do them a disservice when we tell them stories that end with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Beyond the impact on donors, it’s a valuable lesson for organizations to learn during the Great Resignation. When you tell your story, your staff are listening. If that story is incomplete or trivializes their work, it will add to any sense of disconnection or burnout they’re feeling.

Frame your work around the larger impact and the community of heroes solving the problem and your organization will benefit in immeasurable ways. Need help? Reach out to Team Kat & Mouse today

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