Bringing A Narrative Eye to Philanthropy – Part 3

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Jorge Cino, Social Media Fellow, at the Levi Strauss Foundation.

by Jorge Cino

Note: You can access the first part of this post here, and the second part here.

Throughout the recent annual conferences of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and the Council on Foundations (COF), I noticed that grant makers are placing striking emphasis on how to communicate our stories in new and better ways. While many leaders are still (understandably) looking for ways to measure the impact of their organization’s social media efforts (Beth Kanter discussed this in a recent Philanthropy411 post), content quality remains a non-negotiable pillar of communication.

In the social media landscape, blogging presents both an opportunity and a challenge: the opportunity to tee up your organization’s work with more depth and color than the 140-character- Tweet allows, and the challenge to unlearn some of our instinctive approaches to communication.

Abandonment can be difficult. Especially when it comes to the long paragraphs, jargony language, dense sentence structures and dry prose that often characterize philanthropic communication.

At the Levi Strauss Foundation, we believe storytelling is a crux part of our efforts to convey the work of our grantees in original and better ways. As a creative writer, I offer these five tips from the storytelling world as lynchpins to successful blogging about philanthropy—communication that keeps in touch with our times and preserves the integrity of our rich and multifaceted work:

1. Lead with the human element of a story. Make the reader care about your cause by drawing their attention to the people at the core of the issue. Also, you only get one beginning—give the reader an appealing hook to “enter” the story. When we profiled Lateefah Simon, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the Bay Area, we opened the story with a personal quote about how historic advances in social justice intersected with her life. This grounded the piece at a personal level—and  answered the “so what?” of the story right away.
2. Don’t miss “teachable moments”—but keep them accessible. As a general rule, avoid subjecting the reader to technical terms unless you can explain them in vivid, concrete ways. The beauty of the blog medium is that specialists and casual readers alike may access content at any given time. There are always new opportunities to bring awareness to an issue your foundation cares about, and to the role your foundation plays in addressing it.
3. Stimulate the reader’s senses. Keep the prose crisp, shorten paragraphs to a couple of sentences each, and appeal to the reader’s sensory palette. (When in doubt, split the sentence in two!) Condense denser passages into digestible “nuggets” of information. Whenever possible, accompany your pieces with vivid imagery or video: in the digital age, appealing to the senses helps sustain the reader’s attention and provides multiple entry points to your story.
4. Keep in mind the intended audience for each post. Underlying the previous points is the imperative that your message should adapt to your audience. Although I earlier used the word “lynchpin,” I would choose a different word if I were addressing a field that doesn’t use it often.
On the flipside, remember that your intended reader is likely reading your story online. Whether you’re a baby boomer, a Gen-X or a Millenial, your online content exists in the social marketplace—many other blogs, videos and podcasts compete for your reader’s attention. Keep this in mind as you consider what kind of information you want to include in a single post.
5. Anchor the story to the organization’s history, hallmarks and values. A crisp, well-placed sentence about your foundation’s role in tackling a given issue can go a long way toward building reputational awareness. For example, this is how our guest blogger explained her role in eradicating discrimination against Filipino migrants living with HIV/AIDS.

With these tips, I conclude this series of posts about my experiences bringing a narrative eye to the Levi Strauss Foundation’s communication efforts. I hope these posts provide useful insights and practical tips about the art of blogging. I also hope they inspire other leaders and emerging practitioners to think creatively about how they might best leverage social media tools.

I thank Philanthropy411, as well as EPIP, COF and Daniel Lee, for giving this “emerging practitioner” a voice.

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