Why the Surprise Journal Is a Great Nonprofit Storytelling Tool

Welcome to my #3 post for the #YourTurnChallenge – the best kick in the pants ever.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my career in nonprofit communications — building, scaling and realigning content programs for rapid growth.  Later in this blog, I hope to outline some ways to build and improve comms for nonprofits large and small, taking a deeper look on occasion at Hispanic philanthropy and causes.

In this post, I want to focus on a new journaling technique called the Surprise Journal (great Pinterest post and the original Fast Company article) and how this approach is the perfect tool for nonprofit storytelling.

Surprise Journal basics

The point of the Surprise Journal is to write down and record the things that, well, surprise you – and then examine the reason for it. It gets to the heart of assumptions and expectations, helping us reset our thinking accordingly.

It works great in brainstorming or team building settings. For Julia Galef, CEO of the Center for Applied Rationality: “I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.”

“I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.” — Julia Galef, CEO, Center for Applied Rationality

So what does this have to do with nonprofit storytelling?

To show how they make a difference in the world and in people’s lives, nonprofits use storytelling to paint a picture of what that change looks like — with skin on. Ideally, it accompanies good data the story embodies. (That’s a different post.)

If you’re a nonprofit communications person tasked with story gathering and storytelling, sometimes it can be hard to recognize the change when you witness it in gradual steps, day in and day out.

Frankly, it can feel like you have blinders on and are powerless to take them off at will.

However, there’s one set of tools every nonprofit should have: Volunteers, donors, board members – other people who share our passion for the cause but who may not see it every single day .

They notice the differences over a period of time, so let’s ask them. Here’s how.

Observing up-close and personal

At one organization I worked at, our donors and sponsors often visited the international work they supported, and even the children they sponsored through sponsor tours, where sponsors of individual children could meet them and their families in person.

That was a prime opportunity for our field writing team to learn from the first-hand experience of the visitor who didn’t often get to see the work they were enabling us to do and the difference they were making.

Our comms people were nationals, many of whom had grown up facing the circumstances of poverty the children we served dealt with. So, at first, it was hard for them to see how we could tell stories about change and contrast – the proverbial “before and after.” How could they tell a story of how the donor was making a difference? Different from what?

To train on the “surprise” element, we would send a comms person on those trips and ask them to observe visitors, capturing their surprise and what they were reacting to. Maybe they’d never witnessed extreme poverty conditions like lack of sanitation or access to clean water, or child labor.

Visitors’ reactions ranged from gasps, hands over mouths, sudden quiet, silent tears. It ran the gamut. There was no doubting their surprise. In fact, surprise was kind of an understatement for what they were experiencing.

It’s the journalist in me, but that’s where the gold is, folks. In our case, we would ask people, respectfully and via casual conversation, what they were thinking or feeling at that moment.

  • What had caused their reaction?
  • Did they see poverty like this in Australia or the Netherlands or America? If not, what did it look like there? How was it different?
  • What were they comparing their present experience with?

The rule applies here, too

The same works whether your work is across an ocean or in your own back yard.

To know the things you need to tell stories about to help others understand your mission and its impact, capture the reactions of your organization’s stakeholders as they experience your program’s work first-hand. This is especially effective of more newly engaged donors, volunteers or board members who are invested in the cause but still learning about it.

Their reactions will speak volumes while providing plenty of insights and material to work from.

I’d love to know some of your tips on telling a strong story that shows change and how you gather content to produce it. It’s hard, rewarding work whose impact – thankfully – has the power to leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.

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