We are a strange bunch, us NGO folk: we deal in change, design theories of change and logic models to show us the way and create toolkits and handbooks to help us along the way and commission reports to tell us where we have been and where we might want to go.  We have cycles and plans and pathways and mechanisms.  We consult stakeholders and beneficiaries and trustees and workers to help form a view of what we’re doing.  We do “learning” to capture what’s happened so that others can know what we did.

What we don’t do, and what we should do (and what we are actually doing), is tell the story of what we are doing.  By that I mean, think about your work in terms of the structure of a good story, that might make a fine movie or novel or play or graphic novel some day.  I don’t mean case studies, blogs, press releases.  I mean reports and evaluations can and should tell a story.

I struggle with executive summaries (its no secret).  And in trying to get better at writing them, I came across some advice that has stuck with me ever since: write the executive summary first.  “Heresy!” I hear you cry.  Well, not actually.  A well structured executive summary is like a great short story: punchy and to the point, containing only the relevant information and giving the reader just enough so that they know what is going on.

Now I’m not saying that we should all ditch report structures and write like our favourite novelists, that would never work!  But within the structure, remember the reader.  Remember that someone has to follow your thoughts and ideas and understand your arguments.

Last week I talked about infographics and the growing importance of visualising data.  Today’s blog and last week’s bog remind me of a recent evaluation of an NGO that had ditched the traditional silo model of management in favour of a matrix style approach.  The heart of the organisation was the marketing team (hooray, I hear the fundraisers shout).  What this meant was that every great idea that the technical specialists came up with, could be fully articulated and sold to donors and beneficiaries in one of the most accountable structures I had ever seen.  That NGO was good at storytelling and even better at getting that story out there.

You might think that this all sounds a bit too commercial, but when you think about it, even an NGO is a business and some business processes and principles are very transferrable.  What that NGO did not have, was a learning policy or function (so in vogue in international development at the moment) and yet the staff reported in a survey that they did learn and they knew about successes and failures and could apply what they learnt to their work.  It turns out that to successfully run a matrix organisation, you have to be excellent at communication and everyone everywhere at every level has to constantly talk to each other all the time.

Talking to each other and telling a story: far more important than emails and meetings, and better than dry reports!

Do you have experience of either reading or writing a report that was dense and full of relevant data, yet no-one read it?  Is communication excellent in your NGO and helped by the management structure?  What is your experience of storytelling?


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