The military and the corporate world increasingly employ a tool to help gain the upper hand, be it in war or in snagging more market share. It’s a tool that is particularly well-suited for nonprofits, as well. The tool is called the “strategic narrative”.
Military expert Michael Vlahos describes to journalist Kaihan Krippendorff that strategic narratives in the military context are considered to be "compelling storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn." Or alternatively, “an interlocking framework of ‘truths’” that explain how a conflict came to be, where it is going, and how it should be argued and described.
Why are they so important and why should cultural nonprofits care about them? As Krippendorff explains, the answer is simple: everybody wants to win…and everybody loves a winner. A compelling strategic narrative, which is, in effect, storytelling, has the potential to draw audiences and keep them coming back for more. The story or stories that lay out an organization’s directions or desired future become an easily accessible way for audiences to grasp institutional goals and the rationales behind them.
Traditional conceptualizations of strategy have tended towards notions of fit (“How might we fit into this or that environment”), prediction (“What is ahead? Where will we be then?”) and competition (“How might we ‘rule the roost,’ survive within the ‘pecking order,’ or gracefully ‘chicken out’?”). In contrast, a narrative view of strategy stresses how language is used to construct meaning; consequently, it explores ways in which organizational stakeholders create a discourse of direction (whether about becoming, being, or having been) to understand and influence one anothers’ actions. Whereas traditional strategy frameworks virtually ignore the role of language in strategic decision-making, a narrative approach assumes that tellings of strategy fundamentally influence strategic choice and action, often in unconscious ways.
-- David Barry and Michael Elmes. Strategy Retold: Towards A Narrative View Of Strategic Discourse. 1997.
Where Barry and Elmes describe strategic narratives as a type of metaphorically-rich fiction that “stands out from other organizational stories, is persuasive, and invokes retelling”, I’ll suggest that the best, most useful strategic narratives are not pie-in-the-sky word pictures. They are in fact, grounded in reality. This is key. Just as with any type of strategic planning, strategic narrative is born of an organization’s relationships to its audiences and to their wants and needs.
As Vlahos said in the Krippendorff interview, "The relationship between customers and the corporation needs to be something more than manipulation by the corporation to get what they want. It has to satisfy their vision of what they are and what they want to be.”
Importantly, Vlahos contends that a corporation’s narrative needs to be in harmony with that of the greater civilization. A business’ actions become the posts of its story, and a company needs to show that ultimately this fits with where the community at large wants to go.
The example Vlahos uses from the corporate world is the competition between Microsoft and Apple. While Microsoft remains the marketplace’s 800-pound technological gorilla, Apple has a legendary loyal (but considerably smaller) following. Apple attracted those followers with a strategic narrative built on the classic underdog story – a story of hard work and determination that eventually leads to success.
So, let’s apply the tool to cultural nonprofits. Do you think the lack of a strategic narrative that ties into where the community at large wants to go is a fundamental reason why so many culturals are still considered the wards of the white glove class? That when push comes to shove the arts are cut from public education because they’re not viewed as essential? That when a cultural stands at the brink of closure, it’s expected that deep-pocketed supporters will provide the bail out?
Krippendorff offers up these four prompting questions to get you thinking about your organization’s strategic narrative:
The strategic narrative plays a role within the company and outside of the company. Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can craft a narrative that your employees and your customers can support.
1. What is your company’s narrative?
2. How does your company’s narrative fit the broader cultural one?
3. Is the narrative closely associated with your company’s leadership?
4. How can I share our narrative to inspire others?
In searching for examples of nonprofit strategic narratives, I did come across one listed as such: St. Leo University, Florida. Let me know how well you think it meets the criteria for strategic narrative.
Photo: The Plan