A distinctive feature of the social sector is the human element - our work is rooted in individual experience. Learning how to understand and appreciate these stories is essential to an organization's success.

Impact and Stories in a Triad

This article was contributed by Burkhard Schaffitzel, a strategic analyst at goodroot

Based on Krüger, S. & Schaffitzel, B. (2014) Wirkungsgeschichten - Wie die Arbeit mit Geschichten zur Entwicklung zivilgesellschaftlicher Organisationen beitragen kann; Stiftung&Sponsoring - Die Roten Seiten 12/2014

Section 1: Storytelling? Never heard of it. Not.

Stories, as the most ancient medium of communication, have always been around, and so has the discussion of systematically using stories for a variety of purposes. However, impact assessment is a new and very promising domain for its application since the quest for hard data in this field has sprawled to an extent that is questionable in our view.

Many social enterprises and non-profits want to describe the impact of their efforts to create change. We encounter two motivations: One is to legitimize the reception of funds and attention, the other to challenge and improve the theory of change and establish a continuous learning process within the organization. While the first is more common, both are important to help understand the relationship between resources, inputs, goals and impact, and then using these insights to help grow and develop an organization.

Impact Assumptions

Usually, the starting point is what we call impact assumptions. Impact assumptions are the hypothesis on which founders and funders of social enterprises and non-profits believe to be able to create change or, more precisely, impact. An organizational culture that allows for questioning impact assumptions will contribute to a continuous learning process. As always, the willingness of key decision makers to engage in such a process is of crucial importance. However, the process of continuous learning cannot be successful without a suitable set of instruments.

We want to introduce stories as one such instrument in organizational development. It focuses on assessing and describing impact in collaboration with as many relevant stakeholders as possible. We emphasize that storytelling (as we understand it) is a complementary approach in impact analysis and not a substitute for more common practices like data collection and analysis. Overall, by using stories we hope to establish a closer link between evaluation and organizational learning. We particularly like storytelling for its appreciative approach towards the people involved, while at the same time opening minds and hearts for innovative and creative solutions.

Blurred Lines

As storytelling entered the fields of leadership, management and organizational development over the last decades, the definition of what a story is has become somewhat blurred. Richard Krueger, President of the American Evaluation Association, offers one useful definition:

„The individual story is a fragment of data. A story gives us a glimpse of something at one point in time from one point of view - like one frame of a motion picture. Often the evaluator wants to present the larger picture and multiple perspectives'. However, stories can provide valid data when presented as part of the evaluation process and data.“ (Richard A. Krueger)

In terms of their practical application, stories help us to capture what is perceived as important or effective in the individual experience of a participant. Often this happens subconsciously or is not even noticed by storytellers and listeners. This is very interesting for the purpose of evaluation because it reveals impact dimensions, which classical evaluation methods would simply miss. Working with stories requires curiosity and appreciation for individual experiences and perceptions. Both of these contribute to a participatory organizational culture that is a distinctive feature of the social sector. Furthermore, listening carefully to individual stories acknowledges personal engagement and fosters motivation, both of which are important cornerstones in social enterprises and non-profits.

„The value of stories as material to open windows into both organizational culture and individual experiences which are inaccessible by more conventional research means is now beginning to be tapped“ [1] (Yannis Gabriel)

Storytelling is a relatively new instrument in evaluation and impact assessment. In 2010, Global Giving, the American donation platform, started a feedback process to assess the impact of a number of cooperating projects in Kenya over time. A similar approach has been developed by UNDP Montenegro to identify relevant conditions to increase civic and political engagement among the population. Deutsche Post DHL has recently carried out a large, story-based evaluation process in order to investigate their global partnership with SOS Children's Villages. In Germany, goodroot and its partners have been developing slightly less extensive approaches in order to enable smaller organizations to harness the power of stories. In all of these examples, the openness to reflect on programs in light of the images and language used by critical stakeholders enabled both a better understanding and description of impact, as well as the integration of these insights into strategic decision-making.

Section 2: Storytelling: This is how we do it!

Collecting and interpreting stories can be done in a million different ways and most of them have fierce support from somebody out there. On top of sharing the method, we at goodroot are working to further develop and perfect the art of storytelling. In this section we present aspects of our experience that will apply to most efforts of those working with stories in organizational development.

Planning

Planning a storytelling process is not significantly different from planning other diagnostic processes. Questions that are typically asked in this phase include:

  • What are key questions the process is designed to answer?
  • Who is going to work with its results and how?
  • What kind of output or product can be useful?
  • How are stories going to be collected?
  • Who might have interesting stories to tell and be willing to contribute?

The clearer the answers, the more targeted a process can be developed and the more effectively the available resources can be used.

We find it very helpful to develop a common understanding of what qualifies for a story at the beginning of the process. It doesn't matter if this definition is scientific or rigorous. The term „story” is inherently ambivalent and early discussion aligns expectations, a good thing for most processes.

Collecting the Data

In contrast to information gathered from databases or collected using standardized surveys, stories pose a particular challenge for data collection. This is because the collection of qualitative data is not only generally more elaborate than a query in a database, but also because the interviewer takes on a crucial role in narrative research methods:

“As an art form, storytelling is not a solo performance of one person telling a story and someone else hearing their words. It is a very subtle transformative event that always takes place in the present and is reciprocal. (…) Storytelling has the capacity to directly engage the heart and imagination in such a way that a deeper level of listening is activated, which opens the eyes of perception”[2] (Laura Simms)

So what does it take to collect good stories in an organization? In addition to an appreciative and respectful attitude towards those telling their stories, so-called prompting questions are important tools. Prompting questions are designed to invite the interviewee (or a group of interviewees) into a mode of narration. This can be illustrated by a simple example: The question, "How are you?" while being an open question, generally evokes only a monosyllabic answer that is meaningless at worst. In contrast, consider a prompting question such as "What made you laugh today?" In most cases this question will result in a description of a specific incident. The "questionnaires" we use thus contain a few prompting questions related to the purpose of the process and aimed at encouraging interviewees to remember specific situations and describe these in detail. Through more targeted questions, certain aspects can then be sharpened.

Equipped with this very open type of questionnaire, the main challenge for an interviewer becomes to create an appreciative atmosphere that encourages conversation:

„The researcher's demeanour, attentiveness, and reactions play a decisive role in the generation of stories“ [3] (Yannis Gabriel)

Analysis

To identify and carve out relevant stories from the documentation of an interview is a tricky but crucial part of the process. An audio recording of the interview has proven to be a good starting point. In this phase, the common understanding of what qualifies as a story that we agreed on in the initial phase of the process becomes most helpful. In the process of identifying meaningful stories within the material, we advise that less is more. We understand the temptation of squeezing out every bit of story from the interviews, but for the process of transliteration, interpretation and sharing a vast bulk of stories is just very unwieldy. Start simple and thoughtful in order to save your own and your team´s resources.

The main difference in the analysis between associative stories and data from standard questionnaires is the much higher diversity of interpretation. Stories do not lead to a single result, this is the very reason they are collected. They offer surprising perspectives and bring to light hidden knowledge. A very important aspect of analyzing stories is to let those who volunteered the data participate in the evaluation of it. We have used the following settings to make sense of the story material:

  • Transliterated stories are read and analyzed by a small team looking out for possible patterns. Based on these patterns categories can be developed that help the storytellers link their own stories to the categories[4]
  • Facilitated workshops with the leadership team to collectively read and make sense of the stories with focus on a specific strategic question
  • Facilitated large group formats where different stakeholder groups have the chance to read into and discuss the material: inviting friends and family who are not familiar with the context of the stories has proven to offer fascinating perspectives
  • Analysis of the stories gathered using software packages (only advisable for a very large number of stories).[5]

Passing it On

The last step of the process involves sharing the stories to combine both concerns mentioned in part one of this triad. Regarding internal organizational development, the findings from the process can be integrated into project and strategy development, even if the individual stories are to remain confidential. In addition to communicating findings, we have experienced that sharing stories (if approved by the storytellers) contributes to implicitly finding and sharpening organizational values and increasing stakeholders' identification with these.

For the external use, such as marketing and PR, fragments of stories can be used as anecdotal "proof of impact". In our work at goodroot, we focus on using stories mainly for internal purposes (organizational development). However, finding more creative personnel to build claims and marketing messages from the collected material should not be a great challenge. Check out the PROJEKTFABRIK annual report to find our how we have used stories and testimonials in impact reporting.

What are the challenges and preconditions for successful storytelling and analysis? Check back next week for the third and final installment of this article.

Notes

[1]Gabriel, Yannis (1995), The Unmanaged Organization - Stories, Fantasies and Subjectivity. Organization Studies, 16, 477-501; S. 480.

[2]Simms, Laura, in: Watkins, Jane Magruder; Mohr, Bernhard J. & Kelly, Ralph (2011), Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination (Practicing Organization Development, Vol. 35); Pfeiffer 2. Edition; S. 77.

[3]Gabriel, Yannis (2000) Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies, Oxford University Press; S. 18.

[4] Find innovative and managable methods to identify patterns at IDEO (http://www.ideo.com) or among the toolkits of the Monitor Institute (z. B. http://monitorinstitute.com/communityphilanthropy/toolkit)

[5]see the works of David Snowden at Cognitive Edge (http://www.cognitive-edge.com). „SenseMaker“ (www.sensemaker-suite.com) is a software tool that collects and analyzes large numbers of stories.

About the Author

Schaffitzel_02

Burkhard Schaffitzel supports goodroot in various evaluation und strategy projects. He is especially interested in analysis of and orientation towards impact in organizations as a basis for sustainable strategy development. During his studies at the University of Witten/Herdecke, Burkhard gained experience regarding evaluation and strategic consultancy in various settings (i.e. with osb International and in a research consultancy initiative by Prof. Dr. Dirk Baecker). After completing his Bachelor, he worked as a Teach First Deutschland (TFD) Fellow at a secondary school in Berlin-Neukölln focussing on helping underprivileged students to excel. Additionally, he represented TFD on international conferences and worked as junior trainer for the training and development departmend of TFD. Most recently, he initiated a virtual feedback dialogue for the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung to improve the integration of media in political education. Since 2011, Burkhard is enrolled in the Masters' Programme in Management and Entrepreneurship at Humboldt University in Berlin. Contact: bschaffitzel@good-root.org.

Originally published March 9, 2015