Why Your Strategy Needs a Story

Communicating your association’s reason for being is essential for leaders. A simple rubric can help distill your complex activities into a powerful narrative.

Associations are often told that they need to “tell a story” around their mission, and the news these days is full of examples of how complicated that can be. The machines aren’t getting storytelling right: Microsoft launched an AI chatbot that quickly gained a reputation for being “weird and creepy.” Other tools like ChatGPT have become so proficient at mimicking storytelling that we’re now awash in fake stories; a science-fiction magazine recently had to close submissions after being overwhelmed by AI-generated tales

Your association’s story is hopefully less creepy and more authentic. And all the conversation around AI should underscore just how important storytelling is for your audience.

In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, four leadership consultants discussed just how intimately connected story is to an organization’s strategy. That’s especially true in nonprofitdom, where so much of the mission is about persuading audiences about the importance of a particular cause or profession. As the authors point out, “people are not fully rational actors, motivated by facts and logic alone. Stories can bind the logical ingredients of a strategy into an engaging narrative which can move their audience to act.”

So what makes for an engaging narrative that also promotes a strategy? According to the authors, the process starts by understanding some basic facts about your organization—what services you provide, who you serve, and the relationship between the two. From there, you can construct a “strategy story” that puts that information in the context of the organization’s past, present, and future. 

People are not fully rational actors, motivated by facts and logic alone.

The article uses the example of the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society, which has efficiently pared down its message: a past history of elephant-tusk poaching has created an urgent present-day crisis, and we need your help to stop this in the future. It’s a rubric that any association can apply: Our industry serves X number of professionals, and contributes a meaningful amount of revenue to the national economy; but it faces certain existential threats (economic, educational, regulatory); join and engage with our association so we can address them in the future and better the profession.

It’s so simple that … an AI algorithm could do it? Not exactly. Only your organization knows your members, and knows where to look to identify those headwinds. Only your organization can craft a message that resonates with your audience, and only your organization can revise and test it along the way. The HBR article authors point out that the Wildlife Conservation Society tested its strategy story repeatedly, with a goal of decluttering it of many of the goals that often fill a strategic plan.

The best stories, the authors argue, “can be related to and understood in five minutes or less. Think about whether its focus can be reduced to a few central issues and jettison some of the comprehensiveness which characterizes many strategies.” 

There’s plenty of evidence that nonprofitdom does this well: you can see it in public service announcements that hone a message down to not just five minutes but 30 seconds, and in narrative annual reports that put stories behind the numbers; any advocacy professional knows the importance of making a case quickly to a harried legislative aide. But one powerful message for leaders here is that they are always telling their organization’s story, in every context. Quickly framing your past, present, and future doesn’t just clarify your strategy, it creates a message that encourages more people to support it. 

What does strategy storytelling look like at your association? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Christian Horz/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!