Adopting the Storytelling Method to a Local Context

A few months ago we told you about The Global Giving Storytelling Project. We're keeping an eye on this project because it's an exciting approach that goes directly to people who benefit (or don't) from community efforts to learn what works.

Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant at Global Giving and the person behind the project. Marc told us that local context is a big part of what makes the storytelling approach work, which reminded us once again why we love this project. This tool is more adaptable to local efforts than some other approaches to listening and learning. He's outlined some current case studies and where he's at in this recent post.

Adopting the storytelling method to a local context by Marc Maxson

I am frequently asked for specific examples of how an organization can adopt the storytelling method to its specific programs. Here are case studies from my recent visits to UK-based organizations that are on the verge of implementing listening projects to evaluate their programs.

Case #1

For decades this organization has sought to bring together peoples and foster cultural understanding. The impact of their programs focuses on bridging social gaps, exposing people to different cultures, and changing attitudes and perceptions about the “other.” But instead of using a blunt survey that might ask, “how do you people about the other?” they arrived at this:

Share an experience where you had to work with someone different from yourself. 

This question will add context to the all-purpose story prompting question that we encourage all organizations to use:

Talk about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community.

So if you put them together, respondents will share a “community effort” story with a focus on their personal experience of working with someone different.

Out of this, they hope to gleam insights about the way that attitudes and behaviors are changing. They will ask internal “beneficiary” and external “community” people to both share stories for comparative analysis. They will ask each person to share two stories; one will focus on the difficulty of working with the “other” and the other story will be more open ended, about any meaningful community effort:

Storytelling Case Study

Who: They have a network of a dozen “alumni” that they will train as scribes. Then they plan to bring on groups in Syracuse, NY, Los Angeles, Indonesia, and Gaza.

Case #2

This organization helps thousands of teens in the big city. They measure impact as improved self-confidence, educational attainment, and long-term community involvement. Their programs help young people get “back on track” and help them find fulfilling careers. Though they manage dozens of community programs for youth, their storytelling question adds this flavor:

In your community effort story, talk about an event that personally changed you in some way.

They currently use a 24-question “life effectiveness questionnaire” that was validated by an academic expert [pdf]:

Time Management The extent that an individual makes optimum use of time.
Social Competence The degree of personal confidence and self-perceived ability in social interactions.
Achievement Motivation The extent to which the individual is motivated to achieve excellence and put the required effort into action to attain it.
Intellectual Flexibility The extent to which the individual adapts his/her thinking and accommodates new information from changing conditions and different perspectives.
Task Leadership The extent to which the individual leads other people effectively when a task needs to be done and productivity is the primary requirement.
Emotional Control The extent to which the individual maintains emotional control when faced with potentially stressful situations.
Active Initiative The extent to which the individual initiates action in new situations.
Self Confidence The degree of confidence the individual has in his/her abilities and the success of his/her actions


Clearly, the standard approach is rigorous and defensible, because it has been used in over 20 studies, but it isn’t very flexible. It prescribes the factors to be measured and then uses a cumbersome approach to measure things in a not-so-fun way. Our storytelling form will be front and back of a single sheet of paper and takes just a few minutes to complete, with most of that time devoted to a personal narrative.

I’m most excited that in one of their three programs, they will test an approach we’re borrowing from the book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James Pennebaker. This program pairs youth with older volunteers and they work together to revitalize the neighborhood. At regular intervals, these pairs will interview each other in the storytelling/listening project. Later, we will compare these pairs as conversations and look for language mirroring. 

Mirroring is a measure of engagement. In this context, when young and old start to adopt the other’s way of speaking in their stories, we infer that they are building a relationship with some intimacy:


Even without this mirroring measure, the broader 2-question approach is more likely to reveal community needs than the narrower life effectiveness questionnaire.

Case #3

This organization works with disabled youth, providing them with opportunities to do something wonderful, like the Make A Wish foundation. After some debate, they settled on adding this context to the storytelling question:

Talk about a childhood experience where you were able to do something you never thought you could have done.

They can use this with four different populations they serve: children, parents, donors (to build empathy), and volunteers/public/schools. This is an exciting aspect because unlike other evaluation frameworks, they gain a deeper understanding of what kind of difference they are making in the life of a disabled child through the many others that are effected by this child’s experience.

“Our impact is much more than mere ‘fun’,” the director said. “Providing the inspiration to achieve more is what our events are all about.”

To that end, they are excited that one of the benchmarking follow-up questions in our design is:

“What would have made a difference in this story?”

That allows them to learn how to expand and refine their programs in an open-ended way. Asking this question of four groups will refine their messaging and grant writing, as well as improve their programs and build relationships with the volunteer network they will need to sustain this listening project.

Case #4

This organization will bring storytelling to the 30 schools where they do life skills training. They define success in much the same way Case #2 does. They want to use the open-ended storytelling question to look at how youth define the soft skills they receive, as well as build up an evidence base of the needs that these children have.

They expect it will be very difficult to get children to participate. I suggested that they engage teachers by offering to share the learning that emerges from stories with them. Teachers would probably like to know what their students think about, and this storytelling project offers them a lens into that. They may also explore a young-old mentoring program with the conversation mirroring approach.

Case #5

This organization runs a network of business startup incubators around the world. And while they would like to eventually find a common framework for measuring the impact everywhere, they planned to start with the local hubs.

They plan to ask business leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs to share two stories. One will be about “any community effort” they know/care about, and the other is their own community effort:

Talk about your journey of trying to start a business.

Through this journey narrative, they hope to see what elements define success and failure in an open-ended way. Perhaps their first 100 stories won’t reveal much, but they will have a benchmark over 1250 stories from East Africa about people trying to start a business there. As they grow their narrative collection, they’ll also be forced to build up relationships with people outside their narrow pool of incubator companies. As all of these companies are based on delivering some social benefit to society, the broader “community effort” stories will necessarily be a useful business intelligence database for future aspiring entrepreneurs to mine for ideas.

They were worried they wouldn’t find volunteers who wanted to interview these entrepreneurs. The next day I heard the friend I was staying with complain that no clubs offered him a way to meet like-minded people who are trying to start their own business. My friend tried starting three businesses in Kenya over the years, so I connected him with this organization and suggested they advertise a “meet up” to find more of these kinds of people.

To in effect, the evaluation scheme forces the organization to build up relationships with the community. That is what should be happening – evaluation improves design.


For more case studies and great stories from Marc's work visit his website

We'll let you know what's next in this project as we talk with Marc about what he's learning and how community-based projects are using storytelling to evaluate their impact. Thanks Marc!