Eureka! Storytelling Wins High Praise in Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox 2011

Hershel Sabin


Hershel Sarbin

When a Review copy of Robert M. Penna's "Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox 2011" landed on my desk a few months ago, I wondered whether this comprehensive 350-page guide might—just might—include a few thoughts on the critical relationship between good nonprofit outcomes and good nonprofit communication.

Eureka! My Table of Contents search revealed two chapters (almost 40 practical pages ) highlighting Spitfire Strategies' Smart Chart, and refreshing insights on the power of storytelling from Steve Denning, a Washington, DC-based thought leader in management, innovation and organizational storytelling (

I spoke with Denning earlier this week Here are the highlights of their discussion of common sense communication. 
 - Hershel

Denning on the Power of Storytelling

  1. The human animal is a narrative animal, a STORY animal. We communicate with stories, understand them and live them. Long before the invention of writing, storytellers were the ones who gave us the earliest details of human life, passing them down around the camp fire.

  2. Today, too often we use overstuffed graphics that in their attempt to convey complex situations serve mostly to confuse an audience. As a result, our efforts and accomplishments often go unrecognized.
  3. As Steve Denning tells it: "when I finally abandoned my charts, factoids, and bullet points and instead relied on telling stories to make my point—('Let me tell you something that happened in our community')I found that I got eager anticipation as a reaction instead of glazed eyes, confusion and the distant sound of snoring."
  4. Very often, Denning says, when we try to communicate possibilities or a need for change, we find that the community, our potential investors and even colleagues within our organization seem either to not hear us or do not want to listen.

So what, in Denning's analysis, do people believe to be the difference between knowledge and a story?

Simply put, in our culture we assume knowledge to be something solid, objective, analytical and reliable. In our culture, knowledge is based on information, which in turn is based upon data. We consider these qualities of knowledge as "good."

Our culture has generally seen stories as unreliable, unscientific, probably unprofessional.

Stories are not traditionally seen as knowledge. Instead, our culture has generally seen stories as unreliable, unscientific, probably unprofessional, and, in a word, "bad".  Stories are certainly not the thing professionals would use to make an impression in the corporate world, or with the leaders of the community. Right?

This basic misunderstanding has also been compounded over the past 60 years by the notion that only what can be measured is real. The bottom line is that since stories are not something easily measured by normal quantitative tools, they have come to be viewed as a "less real" form of information.

As Denning sees it, we are drowning in information, but we're getting very little benefit from itand the biggest reason for this is that a lot of the "information" we see, read and hear does not sink in and does not stick.

In fact, Denning says, in spite of what we think we are accomplishing in our reports and presentations, the joke is actually on us, because most current forms of organizational communication are not making an impact upon their intended audiences.

It is as though organizations were sending out all their messages on the FM radio band, while their audiences are equipped with nothing but AM radios.

Prominent sponsors of Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox 2011 include The Renssellaerville Institute and the publication Charity Navigator.

Stephen Denning, a Washington DC-based thought leader in management, innovation and organizational storytelling (, is the author of a number of award-winning books, among them The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Re-inventing the Workplace for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010), The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005). More on Denning>>


Dr. Robert M. Penna, PhD, researcher and consultant, is a member of the Charity Navigator Advisory Panel, and one of the nation's foremost experts in comparative outcome models for the nonprofit and governmental sectors. From 2000 to 2008, Dr. Penna was senior consultant to The Rensselaerville Institute where he made important contributions to numerous Institute projects including the facilitation of seminars at the Institute's Center for Outcomes. He was the lead author of Outcome Frameworks, a book published in 2005 designed to teach donors and nonprofit managers how to select and implement an outcome measurement tool. (See

Hershel Sarbin is the founder of Child Advocacy 360, where this article was originally published. It is repinted here with permission.



An important reminder for all of us. &;Let me tell you something that happened in our community&; is a strong way to start a presentation, or pepper a data-filled talk with stories the audience can hold on to.

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