Impact Storytelling: Clarity, Outcomes, and Connection

Over the last year, Junxion interviewed about two dozen Presidents, VPs, faculty, students, and Elders at colleges and universities across Canada who are applying their work, and the assets of their institutions, to address pressing needs in their local communities.

They’re focused on poverty, unemployment, access to healthcare, reconciliation, local food, social purpose real estate, local economic development… a diverse range of amazing projects, stories and relationships that are thriving nationwide.

These inspiring stories have just been released by our client, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, via their RECODE initiative, as part of a series of papers that complements the work of our friend and ally Coro Strandberg on Maximizing the Capacities of Advanced Education Institutions to Build Social Infrastructure for Canadian Communities.

The importance of work to “build social infrastructure” framed Strandberg’s original paper for RECODE:

“Broadly speaking, social infrastructure is the set of organizational arrangements and investments in society’s systems, relationships, and structures that enable us to create a more resilient, just, equitable, and sustainable world. It includes social, economic, environmental and cultural assets.”

It is a serious and ongoing challenge to communicate clearly what we mean by “social impact.”

The language used to describe social impact, especially by those of us ‘in the industry,’ and by academic experts and researchers, is often too technical, or uses jargon that is unfamiliar to members of the community at large. The phrase “building social infrastructure,” for example, doesn’t immediately mean much to people who don’t already study social impact strategy and sustainability theory—which leaves out a lot of people! However, given an explanation and some examples, most people are able to see how things they are already doing might fit in that frame.

Several senior leaders shared that engaging people in a coordinated social impact strategy for an institution isn’t about asking people to do something new, but about telling a story in which people can see themselves and their work in a bigger picture.

Tell stories with values and outcomes that speak to your audience

Some of the most effective change-makers we interviewed this year were not necessarily the people with the most innovative ideas, or the most expert knowledge. They were the storytellers who could “rearrange” the existing capacities and actors in their institutions to share meaningful insights, telling new stories about the current state of the community, and an inspiring vision of the future.

Ralph Nilson, at Vancouver Island University (VIU), was particularly inspiring. He spoke passionately about how VIU is deeply committed to working with small local communities to build skills and employment in a forestry industry that looks very different than 40 years ago—with a reconciliation-aware approach, adapting to technology-heavy operations, and with a clear view of what healthy, resilient communities look like, beyond the extractive ‘boom and bust’ cycle.

Nilson told his stories in clear, plain language that would be accessible to students and local community members beyond the University’s walls. He led with statements of community values like fairness, equity, and respect for people and nature, and kept a clear focus on important, tangible outcomes for communities like health and wellbeing, accessible education, and shared prosperity. It’s a simple, engaging, and inspiring approach.

Yet making the story relatable and emotionally resonant is not sufficient. That would leave storytellers open to accusations of “spin,” and avoids or omits points that speak to the power relationships between the institution and the community. Nilson didn’t go on at length about the details of the underlying policies and processes of their forestry program, but he did provide some key figures about local demographics, income levels, and graduation rates that anchored the story to some meaningful outcomes—and that makes all the difference.

Include evidence that is useful for your audience

Colleges and universities are significant drivers of social and economic wellbeing in cities around the world, which they achieve in part by connecting their core abilities—like training, research, and creating new knowledge—with real community needs—like tackling complex challenges.

An inherent challenge for postsecondary institutions is simply that there are tens of thousands of projects and people, each in their own silos or community groups. Even when community members can access the institution and can clearly articulate a problem that the community faces, they may not be able to say what they most need or know whom to ask for help.

Several people—especially in the role VP External—spoke about the need for ‘agents’ or ‘connectors’ to fill the gap of understanding between universities and communities, helping people to understand “what each other do.” It’s imperative for university administrators to get face to face with community members, and listen carefully to understand the community’s needs. This understanding is essential to successfully, effectively match resources and capacities to people’s and organization’s needs.

Truly impactful relationships are built on fair exchange, mutual benefit, and a balance of power.

This is not about a one-sided relationship, with institutions making “charitable donations” of their time and skills. Truly impactful relationships are built on fair exchange, mutual benefit, and a balance of power. Understanding a community need or issue also means understanding information needs, so community members aren’t just “consulted,” but able to drive the process to prove which solutions work (or don’t), and to improve the quality of solutions.

Successful storytelling about social impact must include evidence of clear, tangible goals and outcomes that are meaningful to the audience, and that can be used to hold institutional partners accountable. This is sometimes expressed as “nothing about us, without us.” Consider what information you could share about your social impact work. Might it help community members get what they need, make a decision, or participate in governance?

Insights for social impact leaders

Canadian communities are beginning to realize even greater shared benefits from postsecondary institutions investing in “social infrastructure”—a path that corporations and governments are travelling as well.

Clear communication about values, goals, opportunities, challenges and community needs is a prerequisite to forming productive, mutually beneficial relationships between institutions and communities.

The best way to communicate what ‘social impact’ means is not to double down on technical definitions or detailed descriptions of policies and programs, but to “listen to learn” from the place where the need is felt. This act of listening leads to effective storytelling that is clear, accessible, meaningful, inspiring, and connected to a base of evidence that helps institutions be accountable to the communities around them.

Garth Yule is a Managing Director at Junxion. He works with clients in the public, private, and social sectors, helping them to discern ‘the differences that make a difference.’ Reach him via [email protected].

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