The Power of Compelling Narratives in Strategic Philanthropy


Philanthropist's Field Guide

The Power of Compelling Narratives in Strategic Philanthropy

For philanthropists and mission-driven organizations, communication is a powerful tool to generate impact. Distinct from storytelling, a narrative conveys a perspective and gives meaning to that world view. Articulating a philanthropic narrative is an essential step toward:

  • identifying and effectively conveying the most crucial elements of your efforts

  • engaging others with whom your narrative might resonate

  • crystallizing your charitable values and priorities

two hands holding up sparklers at twilight

Why is a compelling narrative important in philanthropy?

The power of a well-crafted narrative cannot be undersold. The narratives that frame a philanthropist’s efforts have the potential to:

  • amplify the impact of individual philanthropic investments and contributions

  • educate audiences and mobilize the public toward key issue areas

  • attract additional resources

A philanthropic narrative is an enduring asset that can help shape a philanthropic strategy, which tends to be more time-bound or influenced by external factors. For instance, a philanthropic narrative may illustrate that education is the stepping stone to a productive, meaningful life, while a philanthropic strategy could consist of promoting universal preschool, offering scholarships, or other means of expanding access to education. While strategies and funding priorities may evolve, a philanthropic narrative provides a through-line to serve as your social purpose’s north star.

How do you craft a philanthropic narrative?

A philanthropic narrative is a product of deep reflection on the personal values, experiences, and goals that bring into focus your own story. To create your narrative, articulate how these elements led to your social impact pursuits. This exercise can be done in as little as an hour—via a worksheet or free-writing journaling practice—and repeated every few years as your philanthropy evolves. View our “3 Steps to Guide your Philanthropy” article for more specific instructions on this kind of exercise in introspection. Philanthropic consultants can also facilitate this process with you as a collaborative effort.

What questions can you ask to craft your philanthropic narrative? 

Look to your past, present, and future as you build your philanthropic narrative. The following questions can provide a helpful starting point for your self-reflection:

  • What have been your life’s defining moments? Focus not just on the most uplifting, fulfilling, joyous, or successful, but also on the moments that were most challenging or painful. 

    • How did these experiences ultimately inform your views and values, your hopes and fears, your strategy and goals? 

    • How did your family history shape your social change objectives? What values did your family instill that served as guiding lights throughout your philanthropic journey?

    • Consider how your education and work history have contributed to the values you hold and the issues you most care about. What insights have you carried with you since?

  • What aspects of philanthropy are you most engaged with personally? How can those elements be amplified to invigorate your philanthropic involvement?

  • What is the legacy you want to leave on the world? How does that manifest in your philanthropic pursuits?

How can questioning your assumptions strengthen your philanthropic narrative?

An important part of your philanthropic narrative is identifying societal challenges and articulating your social change objectives. To craft this narrative, you must understand the real root problems that are at the core of your social change objective. This process entails questioning your assumptions of an issue’s origin and the needed solutions. Indeed, taking time to understand a whole system and being willing to look for nonobvious drivers of problems is a crucial component to strategic philanthropy. 

Understanding the motivations and rationale behind how people behave can help you more clearly define the problem they face and identify what solutions they need. Insights from this approach, known as behavioral science, can enable you to craft your philanthropic narrative based on real challenges and needs. These problems and needs should drive your philanthropic narrative. 

Additional resources:

  • Your philanthropic story can begin to take shape by contemplating a few simple questions. Start with CSP’s Initial Questions to Guide Your Philanthropy

  • Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the philanthropic Emerson Collection, provides an exceptional example of a philanthropic narrative, articulated in this open letter

  • Interested in learning more about how to employ behavioral science to strengthen your philanthropic narratives? Check out insights from ideas42, a nonprofit that applies behavioral science to driving social change. 

Published September 23, 2020