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To Expand Reach, Nonprofits Must Tell Stories That Touch Hearts

Judy Belk

Originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on November 6, 2019.

When my Grandma Ada tried to explain to me how deeply entrenched Jim Crow laws were in my home state, she often equated Virginia with a stubborn mule: “You can push it, pull it, but the ass just won’t budge on its own.”

That was one of many expressions and stories that my Grandma Ada passed along. I grew up on the African American tradition of storytelling in which stories were passed down and passed around my family, community, and church, with my Grandma Ada at the center. Her stories connected me with my family’s history and the shared experiences of our people. Her stories might be exciting, suspenseful, funny, or slightly outrageous, but storytelling was serious business.

Now, as a nonprofit leader, it’s my job and the job of the organization I lead, the California Wellness Foundation, to present stories that connect all Californians with the realities of poverty in our state. As we support effective efforts that can help advance health and wellness, I want policy makers, activists, and others to listen with the same rapt attention and trust that I felt when my grandmother was telling her stories to my siblings and me. Is it even feasible to think I could make that kind of connection?

Those of us who lead philanthropic organizations can, and must, make powerful connections. Everything we want to accomplish requires that we be smart communicators and trusted, compelling storytellers.

Throughout my career, I have always believed 90 percent of the world’s problems could be solved if there were more effective communication. I don’t think you can be a successful leader if you’re not a good communicator. You can’t be a good community organizer, a good politician, a good CEO, a good philanthropy leader, or even a good parent or friend, unless you take communication seriously. You must appeal to both the head and the heart, and those listening must believe you are speaking truthfully from your authentic self.

Beyond Dry Annual Reports

Communication is especially important in today’s nonprofit world. But it wasn’t until the past decade or two that philanthropy has understood that. Philanthropy used to be a quiet business because it was so connected with the culture of wealth. Philanthropists didn’t want to seem like they were showing off, and nonprofits didn’t want to come across as salespeople. A dry annual report and a financial audit usually sufficed to show donors their gifts were properly used.

Philanthropy has changed with the rise of social media and technology. Many foundations have missions that are broader and more ambitious. In the case of the California Wellness Foundation, we are looking for ways to make a difference not just to grant recipients, but for every Californian. We distribute nearly $35 million each year. While that sounds like a lot of money, in a state with 40 million people and a state government budget of more than $200 billion, our grants by themselves can make only a small difference. We must also use our voice and storytelling along with mission- and program-related investments to make a difference. Like many philanthropic organizations, we measure our impact and our foundation’s ability to fulfill its mission by how well we use all our assets — from voice to dollars — to promote social change.

My predecessor, Gary Yates, made sure Cal Wellness was among the first foundations to invest in a professional communications unit to lift up stories of our grantees and their work. And more philanthropic leaders are starting to recognize how vital it is to talk about what we do and why we do it.

For as big and dynamic as philanthropy is, we can’t begin to meet all the needs we have identified without help and support that can come only if government is engaged. And that means the public must be engaged. We have the most leverage to move public opinion when we can touch the most hearts.

The programs we support also generate data, but here’s something I’ve learned as a communicator: You cannot change people’s positions with facts alone. You have to find an entry point to reach your audience, which is ideally through personal experience conveyed through story that touches hearts and makes people feel. Just look at the film An Inconvenient Truth, which transformed data to power our awareness and demystify humanity’s impact on climate change.

Connection and Motivation

Stories can also motivate people to act and to care about an issue. When I talk about immigration, I talk about people like Diana, a young woman who was brought here from Mexico by her parents when she was an infant. She grew up surrounded by people who loved her — sisters and cousins — many of them U.S. citizens. She never thought about being undocumented until she saw her peers getting their drivers’ licenses, finding their first jobs, and applying for federal financial aid. Diana was denied those opportunities. When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was announced, she courageously stepped out of the shadows and applied, believing this to be a legal path to citizenship.

When I talk about health care and the Affordable Care Act – still the law of the land despite continued and persistent challenges – I talk about people like Kellie. For years, Kellie suffered from a heart condition yet couldn’t get insurance coverage because of pre-existing-condition policies. This mother of two would sit with her husband in the ER hospital parking lot, afraid that she would die, but without the resources to go in and pay for treatment. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, she was able to get open-heart surgery and experience what so many of us take for granted — the alertness and vibrancy that comes from being able to take a deep breath.

For issues like immigration or health care, just looking at the numbers can make me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. I feel helpless to turn the tide. But when I can personalize it and say, “I know about Diana, I know about Kellie, I can make a connection with another human being who experienced that struggle,” then I feel motivated.

We can be depressed when we read that over 10 years more than 30,000 Californians have lost their lives to gun violence, broken-hearted as we mourn individuals cut down too soon, such as the rap star and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, who was trying to end gang violence, and outraged when 22 lives are lost and families shattered in a matter of seconds in the aisles of an El Paso Walmart. But we can be inspired by a community-based organization like Advance Peace that reaches out to young men involved in firearm offenses to provide personalized coaching and mentoring. The stories of local people striving to better their lives and their communities illustrates the issues and possibilities better than any chart or graph.

Heart to Heart

I often use events in my own life to connect — heart to heart. When I talk about Cal Wellness’s role in assisting women to re-enter society after years of incarceration, I also talk about my sister, who served time in prison and faced many of the same issues that our grantees’ programs address.

When I talk about Cal Wellness’s work to prevent gun violence, I share how my family has been affected by gun violence. When I talk about access to clean water, I describe how growing up for the first 10 years of life without access to running water or an indoor bathroom consumed my daily life. Sometimes people are taken aback to hear me talk about these experiences. Some folks want to call me courageous (which I’m not), or some, I suspect. just want me to shut up for sharing so much (I’m going to keep at it). I’m just like so many — a story to tell. I’m not alone.

The best, most authentic voices to make the human connection aren’t found in our executive offices, but in the communities we serve, working with our grantees. Grassroot leaders know what they want to say. But they often need the resources and platforms to help amplify their voices. Many are savvy communicators who can show us how to better connect issues to words and images that break through the clutter because the emotions are real, the words jargon free, and the stories powerful.

The future is clear: Grant makers must commit to telling stories that wholeheartedly express the social change they seek.

What’s more, philanthropy needs to tell its own story. We need to demystify who we are so that the average American can understand what we do and why.

I often joke that my family back in Virginia teases me about doing something illegal because I’m giving away other folks’ money.

When I grab taxis, I ask the drivers what they do when not driving. When they ask me what I do, I say, “Well, let me tell you a story about my work.” They usually say, “I had no idea. Sounds like a great gig.” I can almost see Grandma Ada smiling down with approval. “Now that’s a damn good story,” she says.

CEO Judy Belk smiles directly at camera in front of a dark grey background
President and CEO Judy Belk

Judy Belk leads The California Wellness Foundation in pursuing its mission to improve the health of the people of California. In her role, she uses her vision and her voice to help Cal Wellness “level the playing field” so that everyone has access to good-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods and quality health care services.

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