So, you're writing a letter of inquiry or maybe you've already been asked to submit a proposal. How are you going to paint that picture of your nonprofit organization, bring what you value to life, and create a compelling story? Where do you find that narrative, the little vignettes that draw the reader in?
Nonprofit organizations, although driven by a mission, struggle all the time with defining and illuminating that mission. But if you don't really have a clear way to describe what is at the positive heart of the mission, it's not only hard to look for support, it's hard to keep functioning.
Appreciative Inquiry is a wonderful tool for discovering the life giving forces of an organization. It requires planning, and will need an organizer and facilitator, (either someone from within your own organization who has been trained, or a professional) but it is not difficult to set up. It should ideally begin with the Board of Directors and everyone on staff, but it should also engage as many key stakeholders as possible: donors, constituents, competitors, volunteers, past employees or former board members, etc. Any voice that is or has been critical to the shaping of your organization today should be invited to take part.
In the first phase, "discovery", everyone will be asked to describe and understand what the real strengths and competencies of your organization are. This is an invitation to tell stories, not a compilation of data or facts. You'll be looking for a collective raising of memories - very different from a linear analysis that tries to break things down into objective parts. What have you done well? What are the stories that you are proud of?
The goal is not to come up with statistics or graphs. Instead, you'll be sharing history, experiences, values. This is laying the groundwork for the overall process of Appreciative Inquiry, which will continue on to "dreaming" and envisioning your organization's future, and "designing" and implementing it. But first you'll be building a common language, using the strengths of your organization as a foundation. It's a great basis for the storytelling that grantwriters are always doing.
There are many ways to start this phase, but the easiest is an interviewing process, where one person interviews another, or a small group process, in which everyone tells a story. (The interviewing process, if done in a comprehensive way, can even take months.) But a shorthand version can be done more quickly, maybe even in one or two meetings, with good preparation. Be sure to have someone in charge of taking all the wonderful stories you've gathered and compiling them.
The interviewer, or the facilitator in a group, asks several key questions, such as:
There is no right or wrong answer, and answers can have whatever degree of confidentiality people choose. There aren't many people who don't want to talk once they are asked! Powerful success stories will emerge from unlikely places. "When she told those stories about her work in the field," one board member said of a staff member, "I was totally blown away by what we've accomplished." That staff member had never talked to a board member before. Humility keeps a lot of people, especially in the nonprofit world, from "going on" about their successes. And most often, nobody asked.
So, a nice side effect of this process is that it engages everyone in the same dialogue and reminds everyone of what is good about the organization. That in itself has positive effects because language can change our behavior as it defines what we believe. Looking for the bright side makes us feel good.
The answers to the questions, the stories of what is at the positive heart of the organization, are shared with everyone. You can start every meeting you have with one of these stories. Some organizations keep a "best practices" folder, filled with stories of effectiveness and efficiency. A celebratory meeting, in which everyone gathers to hear what has been compiled, is also useful for bringing the organization's history alive and creating a collective narrative. Mapping - literally drawing - the positive history is a visual way of showing who you are and what you have accomplished. I know of one organization that kept the original map up for months in a hallway, on huge sheets of paper. People would stop and add little stories, and at almost any time you could find someone looking at it. It was eventually taken down only because it was falling apart, and was reproduced on smaller sheets.
Some organizations do "discovery" often, perhaps annually, as part of the constant regeneration of their history. Some make it a regular feature of board retreats. It is, of course, most effective as part of the whole process of Appreciative Inquiry, where what is learned can be carried through from the past and present to the future. But however it is used, it has the wonderful benefit of creating a treasure trove of stories, ready to help make your organization come alive in your descriptions.
Part Three of this series will look at "dreaming", envisioning the future. Part Four describes the "design" phase, where the dreams are implemented.
What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Appreciative Inquiry is a methodology for developmental change, created by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva at Case Western Reserve Weatherhead School of Management in the 1980's. It focuses on the best in an organization, using provocative questions, storytelling and directed conversation. Find out more.
Reprinted with permission from Grantstation. From the Feb 26 issue of the GrantStation Newsletter.
is a writer, board consultant and educator. For the past thirty years, she has been dedicated to building the transformative power of not for profit organizations.