Organizational narrative: Five villains of the social good

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A Christmas Carol: Ignorance and Want, by John Leech

Looking for a villain for the organizational storytelling of your public- or social-sector organization? Look no further than the gang of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

They sound like a litany of ills from a Dickens novel. They are at least British in tone. In the 1940s when the U.K. decided to reform their social services, they targeted these five problems. I find the scope of their reform ambition inspiring.

(You also have to grant the British the audacity of their timing. They published the Beveridge report, which started the social reform effort, at the end of 1942, during the depths of World War II. Some steps were undertaken during the war, although the bulk of the changes waited until war’s end.)

In organizational storytelling, villains need not be literal people, or even people at all. Any one of these five will do. You can be metaphorical with these five villains, as well.

For instance, environmental organizations might find that casting Squalor as the villain of their story helps them motivate volunteers and donors more than giving the role to Ignorance. Likewise, anti-violence organizations have found success discussing violence as a public health issue rather than a moral failing. This way, Disease becomes the villain instead of Ignorance.

Each of these villains also implies the magic potion that will defeat it. If your villain is Disease, then your story will take on a healing motif. You combat Ignorance with learning or enlightenment.

The system the British developed to attack these five problems, like all systems, certainly has its flaws. (See one critique in this post). But you have to give them credit for clearly naming the villains of their reform story. Without such clarity, I doubt that they would have come close to the ambitious goals they desired.

Does your organization have a clear villain in its story?


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