The Value of Telling a Real Story – Warts and All

Posted by | · · · | Storytelling

Oftentimes, the real-life stories we remember the most are marked by twists and turns, obstacles, and failure. Like the one about the world-famous ballerina rejected from a ballet academy when she was 13. Or the one about a man’s sleepwalking disorder that nearly killed him. Or the one about a nursing aide by day singer by night trying to launch a music career against the odds.

Understanding the real story makes that story more relatable because we’ve all failed, or faced obstacles, or seen our lives twist and turn beyond our control – even if we don’t always want to admit it to ourselves.

But many nonprofits don’t seem willing to admit that twists and turns, imperfections, and even failure are a part of life. What’s the most memorable nonprofit story you can think of? What made it so memorable? I bet the chances are good it had something to do with showing the highs and lows.

Once, when I worked at an education nonprofit, I proposed spending a year filming life in a U.S. charter school, which is a school that gets government funding but is run like a private school. I sold this as a chance to show the public the complexities, discipline, and energy required to run such a school. I had access and the trust of the top administration. I knew there would likely be tough moments during the school year related to student discipline and teacher burnout, but I also knew these moments would make the final story more real.

What’s the most memorable nonprofit story you can think of? What made it so memorable? I bet the chances are good it had something to do with showing the highs and lows.

The quick answer from the nonprofit: no. Management was concerned about filming and showing anything that could possibly be construed as negative. The nonprofit didn’t know what crazy and unexpected things could happen during a school year. I appealed and lost.

As I suspected, the charter school had its tough moments that year. But the school also notched achievements like high test scores and increased enrollment. At the end of the year, the school won a prestigious national award – totally crazy and unexpected. Doesn’t that sound like a great story? It would have been an amazing end to a short documentary film about the school. But alas, that story doesn’t exist except in this blog post, unfortunately.

How have you or your organization told a real nonprofit story? Let us know in the comments or via email at hello@ngostorytelling.com.

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Photo caption: People watch a screening of “Rooster Says,” an original animated film by Africa Digital Media Academy, and “Open Heart,” a documentary by Cori Stern, in Bugesera, Rwanda. September 2014. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl


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