The future belongs to purpose-driven storytelling

Good stories cut through the noise, inspire action – even change hearts and minds. But crafting the right one for your audience can be tough. Learn how to build a NFP movement from the ground up.

Simon Jackson is a unique figure in the not-for-profit world. He’s been a movement builder and activist right from the start, and now he’s continuing to make waves by advancing important issues with a positive impact in Canada around environmental protection and education.

As an upcoming keynote, we had the opportunity to speak with Simon ahead of the Not-for-Profit Forum about how the power of storytelling can galvanize public action on important initiatives – and get updates on his latest work. Read on below as he shares some practical insights for NFP leaders who are keen to embrace change and make a difference in their own organizations.

You founded the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition after one saved your life – there’s even a movie about your experience. What was it like to create a unique, mission-focused not-for-profit organization at such a young age? What challenges did you face then versus now?

Actually, a spirit bear never saved my life – that was the imagination of movie writer, much to my chagrin! My quest to help save the spirit bear was rooted in a passion for bears and a belief I could change the world. And while the Youth Coalition was a flawed beast, I think our ability to unite such a large, disparate audience was due, in part, to our single-mission focus.

By having a singular goal, we were able to create a clear narrative, free of the political baggage that might come with a multi-issue organizational approach. This allowed us to broaden the base and keep people motivated. There were many challenges then, as now – I'll get into this at the forum in February – but I do believe the power of youth was partly behind the Youth Coalition's early success. 

Stories have the power to drive change and transform our perspective on what matters. How have you used storytelling in your work to engage volunteers, motivate stakeholders and connect with the public?

We're a storytelling species. It's how we learn; it's how we engage. Frankly, it's what most often motivates society to change. My journey, like that of many others, was sparked by a story. First a book, then an experience that happened because of it. It taught me the importance of using storytelling to make the spirit bear more relatable to a population who may never see this bear in person. And storytelling was central to our organization’s ability to help build and sustain support for saving the spirit bear.

I think the take home message is this: if you can craft a narrative that acts as a mirror to individuals and society, to help people see themselves as part of your story and your advocacy, then more people will ultimately want to help write the next chapter of that narrative. That's how movements are built.

What’s your advice to not-for-profit leaders who want to integrate elements of storytelling into their mission to reach new audiences? How should they measure success, and what role do you think passion plays in sparking a movement?

Passion, it's clear to me, is the fuel that drives change. My advice is for not-for-profit leaders to reflect on their story: why are you passionate and determined to help a particular cause or sector? That is often the foundation for a great story. Humanizing the motivation is what often makes the policy wonk, jargon-filled issues accessible and hopeful to more people, which ultimately creates a deeper connection between the audience and your work.

Your latest venture, Nature Labs, is focused on offering high school students a more digitally interactive and experiential way to learn about science and the environment. What are your goals for Nature Labs as it continues to gain more traction in Canadian education?

Nature Labs is the art of experiment. We saw a gap in the system and have a desire to help bridge it. This project is attempting to create a virtual high school textbook that can provide teachers with the resources they need to meet existing curriculum guidelines while also allowing students to use nature as a real-world example of class lessons.

The Nature Labs platform is built on a foundation of balanced storytelling, starting with the story of one remarkable bear and expanding to connect Chocolate the grizzly to the stories of 150 Canadians from all walks of life, from prime ministers to top chefs. The goal is to not only foster nature literacy by demonstrating how nature relates to academic courses, but make the experience of education more relatable and relevant to young people.

Our hope is that by showcasing the value of moving beyond black and white thinking or pre-conceived notions, we can help students foster thoughtful public discourse by having empathy for those they disagree with.

We’re excited to have you join us at the Not-for-Profit Forum next month! The 2020 edition of this event will be our first time hosting it in B.C., your home province. What can attendees look forward to in your keynote?

I’d like to continue the conversation above at the Not-for-Profit Forum in February. I believe we live in polarized, complex times and that the loss of good storytelling, spurred by the collapse of traditional journalism, is at the heart of many struggles we face. I hope by sharing stories wrapped within a story I can offer some food for thought on how we, as a sector and as a society, can have an impact as authors of our own positive, relatable and inspiring stories.

Though it might seem like we live in the era of information-overload, good stories can contribute to a broader narrative for NFPs that will ignite passions, foster understanding and promote solutions. This, at least, is why I believe one great story can change the world.

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Join us in Vancouver to make the most of data and purpose-driven storytelling at the Not-for-Profit Forum from February 10-11, 2020. Earn up to 21 CPD hours as you learn how to elevate your organization’s mission so it can keep growing and truly resonate with your stakeholders.