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A Nonprofit Storytelling Activity

A Nonprofit Storytelling Activity

By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | August 27, 2015
Senior Editor, ETR

Heard any good stories lately? Particularly about the work you do and the positive impact your organization has in the world?

Here at ETR, we’ve been thinking about these kinds of stories ever since we read Joan Singson’s blog post on Storytelling for SustainabilityWe decided to do an all-staff activity where we explored some of the stories we have to tell about ETR’s work.

We had a couple of main goals. One was to emphasize that we are all evangelists for the cause. Every person on our staff has an opportunity to share these stories with family, friends, colleagues in the field, potential funders, future employees and many other people whose support for ETR could be important.

The other was to enrich our own organizational culture. The story I tell about an impact my team has had, and the pride we feel about it, belongs to everyone in the organization. If it’s a good story, others can tell it too. And the perfect opportunity—the partner, funder or interested member of the public who would love to hear this story—might come along at any time.

Tales Were Told

For our activity, we met in small groups and discussed things that inspired us about our work at ETR. People shared stories that illustrated where their inspiration comes from. And then we invited the small groups to share some of their stories with the full group.

Here are some of my favorites.

Say “No” to Tobacco

Sometimes we make a difference in ways we wouldn’t even imagine.

My sister ended up on our mailing list and received ETR’s product catalog at her home. Her husband took one look at one of the products that showed the horrible damage that can occur when people chew tobacco and said, “That’s it. I’m quitting chew.” And he did.

Telling It with Enthusiasm

Through my work with ETR’s Community Impact Solutions Project, I’m undertaking an intensive training process to become a WILLOW facilitator. This stands for Women Involved in Life Learning from Other Women.

WILLOW is a social-skills-building education intervention for adult women living with HIV who have known their status for at least one year. The women learn about negotiating safer sex, how to recognize a healthy and unhealthy relationship, and ways to build their social network support.

I’m so excited about doing this, I talk about it whenever I can. The other day, I was getting blood drawn and told the phlebotomist about the WILLOW program. He was so interested, he kept me in the office for an extra 20 minutes so he could learn more. He was really excited to hear about all the excellent work ETR is doing in HIV prevention and support.

The Family Reunion

I grew up in Iran, and I recently went back for a big family reunion. Our family is very dispersed—they live all over Europe, in the U.S. and in Iran.

About 60 people were sitting around the tables at this gathering. One of the uncles, the patriarch of the family, began asking people what they were up to and what work they did.

“You,” he said, pointing at me. “What are you doing in America?”

I told him I worked for a health organization, and that I coordinate print production, purchasing products and manage inventory.

“What was the last thing you ordered?” he demanded.

I paused and looked around the room, took a deep breath, and said, “A few hundred wooden penises.”

He looked puzzled. “Well, what did you order before that?”

“10,000 condoms.”

“Wait,” he said. “Are you in the porn business?”

“No,” I said. “I’m in the health business.”

He wasn’t sure he believed me, so I showed him one of our videos on how to use a condom. Everybody was really impressed with the video and the work we’re doing. Now, people from my family and their friends all over the world are checking out this video.

Computers and College

I’m a research assistant for one of our projects looking at STEM education with underrepresented children and youth. Most of our students live in a heavily agricultural area, and they haven’t had a lot of educational opportunities in their lives.

At the end of the year, we had a pizza party with our fifth graders to celebrate the last day of the program. The kids were running all over the place eating pizza and throwing nerf balls. One of the boys sat down next to me and said, “This class was so fun! I want to learn more about computers!”

“That’s great!” I replied.

And before I could say anything else he asked, “Do you get to learn about computers in college? Did you go to college?”

I told him that I did go to college, and that yes, lots of people learn about computers in college.

“You went to college? What do they feed you for lunch in college?”

“Actually, it’s not like elementary school. At college, you have a bunch of places you can go to get food, and you just choose whatever you want to eat.”

His eyes got huge. “You’re kidding. That sounds awesome. So what’s the bedtime when you’re in college?”

“There’s really no set bedtime,” I answered. “You could stay up all night if you wanted. Except that might make it hard to stay awake in your classes.”

“Wow. What kinds of classes do you have to take?”

I told him he could mostly choose the classes he wanted. Like if he wanted to take all computer science classes one term, he could do that.

“That is so great. I’m totally going to college!” he shouted. “And that kid,” he said, pointing to his best friend, “is going to be my roommate!”

We spent the next 30 minutes talking about college. I realized this student had, literally, no role model in his life who had ever been able to tell him anything about what a college experience would be like. I was really proud to be able to give him lots of information and encouragement to keep moving in that direction.

Plenty More

There were lots of other stories. One staff member described hearing our incredible customer service staff working with people on the phones, going above and beyond every day to make sure customer orders go through well.

Another talked about the impressive commitment to mentorship among ETR’s researchers and all of the ways they make that extra effort to support newcomers to the field.

Another told the story of ETR from its days as a small nonprofit with one training grant and a few pamphlets to a national leader providing research, training and evidence-based/informed programs.

Several told stories about their careers here over the years—how they were able to move into new areas, do new and cutting-edge work, and feel proud of their opportunities to advance the field.

So it was a fine day of storytelling. We all learned more about our organization, each other and our inspirations. We all have more tales to tell and it was a nice “refresher” for the pride we have in ETR’s good work. Several people told me this was the best all-staff meeting they can remember.

What are the stories in your organization? I encourage you to gather together and share them with each other. The world is waiting to hear them.

Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor and manager of ETR’s blog. She can be reached at



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