The organization or the story: which must come first?

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In a recent post for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Thaler Pekar posed a provocative question about organizational storytelling in the public and social sectors: might funders sway funding recipients to deliver sensationalized tales?

This question might seem to lead directly to some obvious admonitions to storytellers: Be credible. Don’t pander. Know your audience.

There might even be admonitions here for story audiences, as well: Demand credibility. Read / listen critically. Caveat emptor.

The Silicon Valley dialectic between entrepreneurs and funders is riddled with sensationalized stories designed mainly to land funding, with little clear thought about how to deliver on the story. (See Flooz.com and Beenz.com.)

Let’s concede the difference between storytelling and cheer-leading, and look beyond the obvious. In the public and social sectors, funders are the customer, in the sense that they are exchanging money for an organization’s goods and/or services. Knowing what customers want and meeting customer needs are key marketing activities and prime objectives of nearly all organizations.

Public and social sector customers can often hand an organization an exact description of what the product or service they are seeking, in the form of a request for proposals (RFP).

If a customer’s needs inspire an organization to craft (and deliver on) a credible story about how they can meet those needs, then to me that seems like a fairly efficient marketplace.

In other words, in the hero’s journey of an organization, I think that a perfectly fine invitation to adventure is receiving the story of your potential customers. This fits with the piece of business wisdom about starting with customers first. It keeps your organization from being a solution in search of a problem.

Organizations that tell sensationalized tales may well be those with a solution and searching for a problem. If they can’t develop a compelling problem statement at the outset, then a sensationalized tale might be their substitute.

So having funders / customers drive the story of an organization isn’t all bad. Maybe if more government agencies delivered on the stories that we taxpayers, as funders / customers of government, wanted to hear, we’d be making progress on issues like immigration, income equality, gun violence, food safety, and more.

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