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A Good Story

I just finished reading  Bernadette Jiwa's wonderful book, Story Driven, in which she encourages businesses to use story to drive strategy.  In her book, Jiwa offers a simple framework for translating the organization's story into a future-looking strategy.  It starts with the narrative about how the organization came to be.  From this, the business creates its values (guiding beliefs), purpose (reason for being), and vision (aspirations for the future). Finally, the strategy which she writes, should "align opportunities, plans and behavior."

Nonprofits have great origin stories and most of them use these to achieve great fundraising success and to drive their strategic plans.  But I am sometimes surprised at how little of the organization's story actually drives its behavior.  Jiwa's book gives the example of VW and its recent emissions cheating fiasco.  She describes how the company's response to the problem was more problematic than the events themselves and how this reflected a bigger issue: the company's behavior was not reflecting its story.  One health care nonprofit I worked with years ago almost faced a board level civil war as it debated offering health insurance to its employees.  The organization had been dealing with significant employee turnover and staff had kind of a "grumpy" culture, which was evident to everyone who walked in the door.  Things came to a head when employees called out leadership for what they saw as a lack of support. The organization's mission was about ensuring access to health care for all, but staff and their families were not offered the opportunity to purchase health insurance through the employer.  This was an almost-medium-sized nonprofit, growing fast and at a critical inflection point in its finances.  Leadership was understandably worried about funding, but they felt hypocritical advocating for access to care while denying employees basic insurance coverage.  The board was split, with some members confessing that they had felt uneasy for years about the discrepancy between the organization's mission and its treatment of its own employees.  Others were adamant that finances came first, adopting a "no money, no mission" mantra.  For months, the board and leadership were at an impasse.

Fortunately, this organization had smart leadership.  The CEO and CFO put together a workgroup to come up with some options. The group included leadership, some board members on both sides of the "aisle" and some staff members.  They researched insurance brokers; they queried partner agencies of the same size in the same regions; they surveyed staff to get a sense of the most important benefits; and they came up with some cost-cutting options that would free up some funding that could be redirected.  Nine painful months later, the organization made some fundamental changes.  They brought the board to agreement on the benefits issue. They partnered with a group of other nonprofits to offer basic health insurance packages for employees and were able to cover a portion of the premiums due to the group purchasing power and the cost savings measures they implemented.  They continued to engage staff in discussions about evolving the benefits package and identifying other areas of support that would improve staff retention satisfaction. They did all of this by taking a deep breath and aligning their behavior to their story. 

Story Driven is really about for-profit corporations (big and small), but I found it had some great lessons for nonprofit audiences.  In the nonprofit world, stories are often so focused on the people and communities we are trying to serve that it's easy to forget about our commitments to the people who are doing the work every day.  Aligning story and behavior has never been more crucial as companies compete for talented employees and employees increasingly want to play a role in shaping their organizations' stories.   

 

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