For decades nonprofits have been telling the same kind of story. It’s the story of the individual whose life has changed thanks to the intervention of the nonprofit. Typically, we meet a main character. We see the challenges she faces. We watch her struggle to solve them on her own. Then she meets the organization and everything changes. It’s all better. Moral of the story: send us more money and we can help even more people.
The problem with the story, though, is that it ultimately hurts the people we mean to help. It shares a narrative of weakness and dependency that ultimately can reinforce negative stereotypes and biases. Further, these stories are often told without the consent of the subject of the story, further exploiting the community we intend to support.
Now the point of this article isn’t to shame and blame. In fact I have to own the fact that I have taught and written this story arc on behalf of our clients at Mission Minded over the years. I’m not proud of this, but I know that learning to be more inclusive and equitable is a continuous journey. As we learn more we do more; we do better. Improve, always is one our values at Mission Minded and here we go.
With this in mind, we have to find a different story to tell. One of the most valuable is the metaphor.
As we all remember from our elementary school language class, a metaphor is a comparison between two things. Add the words “like” or “as,” and it becomes a simile—a specific type of metaphor.
The metaphor story is a story of personal reflection. In the metaphor approach the storyteller recounts something from their own personal experience—something that may not even seem relevant to the organization’s mission—but ultimately helps to make the complex problem of their work relatable.
A brilliant example of a metaphor story can be found in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. She writes,
The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling an invisible beam of light searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house had been built generations ago, and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and had chalked it up to idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years…. With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.
America is an old house. We can never declare our work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.
We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations…. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures build into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now….
Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.
Wilkerson uses the story of her aging house as a metaphor for understanding systemic racism. We infer that just as we may not have constructed the original house, we are its owners now, and therefore must tend to it or else contribute to its decline.
Systemic racism is a complicated subject, and, as Robin Diangelo outlines in White Fragility, we know that even the discussion of racism can trigger defensiveness on the part of white readers. Wilkerson, though, avoids shaming or turning off her audience. By sharing a personal story of an experience others can relate to, she creates a pathway into understanding her perspective and argument.
Wilkerson is a brilliant writer, and while we may not all be able to match her skill at styling prose, we all can learn from her technique. Share a story of watching a tree grow in your backyard, and you can use the observation as a metaphor for continued financial investment in your organization. Or tell a story of how your 12-year-old daughter overcame her fear of heights and learned to rock climb as a way to explain the need for holistic education approaches.
Metaphors may be one powerful arrow in your storytelling quiver. So what metaphors are you using to bring your organization’s story to life? Share in the comments below!
Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.
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