Mutual Frontiers: Social Change, Storytelling and the Blogosphere

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Daniel Jae-Won Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation.

by Daniel Jae-Won Lee

In my view, the core capability of foundation professionals is the craft of framing. Day in and out, we’re called upon to “make the case” – for a compelling issue or cutting-edge approach (logic models, anyone?), to a particular audience (our donors and boards, for the most part) and for a specific outcome (resource flow: ka-ching!). But we don’t perform the work described in proposals. And the money we disburse is not our own.

We wield metrics, social analysis and stories to advance our cause.  We play the translator, the anthropologist, the sociologist, the statistician, the policy wonk, the lawyer. We emerge as “class commuters”—traversing disparate social, economic and cultural boundaries in the course of a day.

No doubt, storytelling is core to the art of framing.  But if there were a talking “Philanthropy Ken” or “Philanthropy Barbie” doll, it might confess at the tug of a string, “Storytelling is hard.”

Let’s face it:  the technical writing called for in our profession doesn’t lend itself to fluid transposition to the social media landscape.  Amid the zeitgeist of the blogosphere, the language of our grants is dry, wordy and academic. (What’s more, it doesn’t resonate within the visual, tactile culture of a fashion apparel company.)

At the Levi Strauss Foundation, we are keen to share the remarkable stories of our grantees:  casting the spotlight on their pioneering spirit and ambitious change agendas.  We’ve always known there’s a trove of stories in our grant portfolios—but until recently, we’ve lacked the wherewithal to tell them.

While our program managers will wax rhapsodic about the courage and innovation of the pioneers who foster our work around the globe, the charge of capturing this essence in a gripping, accessible manner – all within the scope of 400 words – has proven daunting.

In short, narrative storytelling—while a ‘clincher tool’ in the utility belt of philanthropic framing—calls for a skill set most grantmakers haven’t honed.

We knew we couldn’t go at it alone.  In January, we brought aboard a Social Media Fellow to help us craft pieces about the pioneering work of our grantees for the new corporate blog at Levi Strauss & Co., Unzipped.  A native of Argentina, Jorge Cino is a talented, young creative writer who brings unique acumen – the skills of a storyteller and fluency in the blogosphere—to the task at hand.

Catch a glimpse about how Jorge is working with our grants team and applying the narrative lens to our philanthropy here.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.