Storytelling Has an Important Role to Play in Evaluation

It is human nature to want to tell stories and to share important events from each other’s lives. Whether it’s fact-based, or for the purpose of spinning a good yarn during a hazy summer night, human beings have been telling stories for centuries. Simply put, personal stories provide a wonderful glimpse into how people experience their lives.

Although the way we share information has evolved over the years, the benefits of storytelling remain the same and have long been a crucial part of evaluations.  Evaluations make use of personal stories through various narrative techniques to gather information on the impact of our work. Let’s look further at the role of storytelling in evaluation and why it’s important in the nonprofit sector.

Storytelling takes practice. So does story listening

As fantasy author J.K. Rowling once said “No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”  We all have stories to tell, but there needs to be intent to find and gather stories. Let’s take the example of a nonprofit leader who regularly finds and shares stories with her team. This individual describes herself as having a “story antenna.” An amusing thought, but it works.  In her regular check-ins with front line staff, board members and volunteers she would ask them about their day and for an elaboration when a story was impactful. “Story listening” became a regular part of her week and because of this she had a rich repository of stories to share about the impact her organization was having on the community. It also helped her understand, in real time, the challenges and triumphs of her team.

This habit of reflecting on what’s happened is a positive thing to encourage in others and grow in ourselves so memorable experiences can be made sense of and learned from. It’s the foundation of creating an organizational story culture where individuals can practice and hone their skills and confidence in storytelling and story gathering.

Stories can be data

There are compelling stories to be told using data. This is referred to as “data storytelling” and it has an important role in evaluation. Here’s how: Balanced evaluation plans consider both qualitative and quantitative methods. Gathering qualitative data, particularly in the form of story, can be seen as ‘nice-to-have,’ rather than a ‘must-have’ part of an evaluation plan. Increasingly, however, stories can be seen as a quantitative approach as well. Consider the Most Significant Story method where multiple stories are gathered, synthesized and analyzed for themes.

Patients Like Me, the world’s largest personalized health network, is another great example of how storytelling is an essential part of research and evaluation. Patients Like Me is an online community of people with various illnesses who share their experiences. This exchange of stories enables people to bounce ideas off of one another, learn more about their diagnoses on a personal level, form educated opinions about medical institutions and gain invaluable emotional support from their peers. Their members have generated more than 43 million data points about disease and researchers have in turn used this data to improve understanding of the patient journey across multiple diseases.

Identifying our reasons for story

Once we become motivated to find stories within our nonprofit, where do we start? It can be intimidating to think about gathering stories from everyone connected with our work.

Let’s consider the following:

  1. How do we intend to share our stories?

A single story can be shared across many platforms and in a variety of ways. For example, in annual reports, on websites or social media, or shared orally at events, community gatherings or training sessions.  

  1. What’s our purpose for gathering stories?

How will we use the stories we gather?  Will our stories be for our internal learning purposes only, or will we include them (or portions of them) in our marketing efforts? Will they be anonymous? Will our storytellers be willing to share them directly in a public setting?

  1. We should also consider the ways of gathering that work best for our storytellers, whether that be through an interview format or recording their own stories directly.

Stories are learning tools

Collecting stories takes time, so prioritizing how we collect information will be important. For example, do we need to learn about the strengths and challenges of our partnerships or is our priority to gain an understanding of if/how we have made a difference for the people we serve? How about talking with community members and gathering their perceptions of the work we do? If we gain clarity on what’s most important that we learn about from our stakeholders in an evaluation, we’ll be better prepared to respond and make any necessary changes to strengthen our programs and organizations.

Strengthening our individual storytelling and story-listening muscles, in addition to putting together a collective plan about where to focus our efforts are two complementary ways for us to ensure we include stories in our next evaluation.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Email us at!

We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Email us at!

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