Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Telling Stories

While I'm in the mood on donor intent, The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a story on storytelling in family foundations.

Now I’ve never heard of anyone who said, "Talking to your kids about your philanthropy is a really bad idea. Talking about your values with your children is just plain despicable. And telling stories! God, that’s just...criminal."
Nonetheless, I started reading Darlene Siska's piece with tremendous skepticism. I read the slug, "Foundation leaders spin tales from their families' lives as a way to share values and traditions," and, instantly, I was off --

Storytelling? You mean indoctrination. What’s the point of storytelling if it props up the dated views of a backward donor? Storytelling is great in and of itself; it’s just that when people say "storytelling," especially in family foundations, they don’t mean "sharing" stories. They mean older generation gets to tell the younger generation a story, so that the littluns lern they place. When did we start assuming only one generation has a story worth telling? If your stories are going to keep the next generation from telling its own, then sucks to your storytelling. Families might want to ask: why do I want to tell this story? to share my experience? or to duplicate it? to enlighten? or to indoctrinate? Families should be encouraged to tell their stories — as long as they understand that their story isn’t the whole story. As for me, stories? I don't need no stinking stories.

Yes, I've been sitting on those issues for a while... I might want talk to somebody about that. But the article seems impervious to my skepticism: most storytelling is simply not that didactic; most story-tellers, simply not that vicious.

If anything, storytelling can save us from the philanthropy-speak that too often bogs us down in meaningless buzzwords. William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund trustee William C. Graustein argues later in the article:
Story works at a very different level than analytical thinking...We're schooled to think analytically, but story communicates at a level that is much more powerful at building things like trust and imagination.
Narrative short-circuits the philanthropy-speak we frequently fall back on, breathing new life into our discussions. Just when thought you could get away with dismissing a grantee, with a wave of your "we're looking for a more collaborative, scalable approach" wand, they tell you what the grant would mean for the people they serve. Just when you thought you could dismiss your cousin Percy's latest program idea, he tells you how much Grandpa cared about that sort of thing. Suddenly, the people behind the buzzwords appear. It was easier, you think, when they were just buzzwords, but it makes for better philanthropy.

Stories? I think we could use some good stories.

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