Story Across Organizations

What happens when stories are doing translation work between organizations? What does it mean when a story has to travel between different groups? How is inter-organizational storytelling a tool for coordination, collaboration, and leveraging collective resources? To understand how storytelling might work in these contexts, we have to back up and think about what these contexts are.

In my (frequently co-taught) course Youth Services Community Engagement , we talk extensively about how the purposes of various organizations serving youth in communities lead them to collaborate (or not). Examples of the kinds of organizations we discuss are: school and public libraries, homework help programs, Scouting and other clubs, LGBTQIA and allies organizations, religious youth groups, and crisis nurseries as well as organizations that serve youth by serving families such as food banks, shelters, etc.

When considering how different organizations are structured and function, there are a few key aspects that help facilitate inter-organizational collaboration:
  • Mission in action
  • Leadership styles and structures
  • Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
  • Cultures of organizations

Simply put, organizations with more similarities in more of these dimensions find it easier to collaborate. But that may also foster community imbalances or inequities, in that organizations may cluster together in groups because of shared or disparate organizational cultures. In my classes, I've found that students run into similar themes again and again related to these four areas, which I'll elaborate below.

Mission in action
How does this organization enact its purposes? Community organizations have missions, broad or specific, and mission matters. I use "mission in action" because the way that the mission and/or vision of the organization is written or told will definitely align with many of the activities of the organization. But not all. Because the day-to-day work is always evolving in response to community needs, and as those practices evolve the mission does too. Some call this "mission drift" in a negative sense, but I prefer to see it as a neutral process through which organizations may change over time or modify their practices to re-align with their core mission. When organizations share a mission that includes serving youth, then there is good potential for some form of collaboration. In this case, the story we tell about mission and the story our work tells are both highly valuable toward crafting a shared story about the value of the collaboration.

Leadership styles and structures
Leadership means both who's in charge and what governance structures (boards, advisors, etc.) determine who's in charge. Leadership may also involve issues like typical rates of turnover in organizational leadership. For a public library, leadership typically turns over infrequently, sometimes on the order of decades. For your average Boys and Girls club, leadership will turn over more frequently, due in part to the lower rates of pay available for directors. Leaders with similar styles will often work well together, and leaders with similar governance structures will have an easier time translating their shared missions into actions. Complexity or difference in any of these dimensions may make collaboration more challenging. How leaders or boards motivate people toward the shared mission is often most visible in the leaders' stories, and those stories offer much implicit information about leaders' styles.

Relative sizes and statuses of organizations
If a big organization (a school district) is coordinating with (or even hiring as consultants) a smaller organization (such as a tutoring company or a local homework help volunteer program), then there will be some need to translate between the two organizations. The smaller community organization is often lower status, and so they may need to attune to the purposes of the larger organization in their coordination work. Leaders of the smaller organization may find that they need to know many key players in the big organization while, at the same time, those in the big organization may know only one contact in the smaller organization. It may be that each organization has its own story, and that's fine as long as there's room for the other organization in each of their stories.

Cultures of organizations
Culture matters. Organizations have cultures. People have cultures. Sometimes organizations share cultural expectations with groups of people. In my own experience, I've found this to be the case in religious and LGBTQ organizations, respectively, where belonging means identifying collectively to some degree. Similar dynamics can arise with any group, of course, but sometimes culture matters more than other times. If two organizations have radically different cultures, they will need a very strong story of mission overlap to overcome potential barriers. Once trust is established, acknowledging cultural difference can help to nuance the story of the collaboration, but in the beginning collaborators often have to navigate cultural difference without these explicit acknowledgements. The story matters deeply here. That story needs to take account of the purpose of the collaboration, the benefits (shared goals or advantages of leveraging resources collectively), and the specific benchmarks for success. The story of the collaboration is perhaps most important when organizations have very different cultures.

When we talk about storytelling, often the hope is that story can be the conduit to exciting uncharted realms! I believe we often wish to be transported by story. But in establishing cross-organization collaborations, it is also important to be grounded by story in a well-evidenced way that fits with organizations' goals. Many of the claims made for the possibilities of storytelling will turn out to be wildly exaggerated if you don't also take these elements into account. Story can do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of creating meaning and bringing people together, but it helps to understand your context and analyze these aspects of organizations.

Dedicated to Kirstin Phelps, who did an absolutely masterful job of defending her dissertation proposal, a case study of inter-organizational collaboration with a focus on understanding leadership in multiple dimensions. Congratulations Kirstin! With special thanks to Sheila Bishop for sharing some of her forthcoming work on collaboration. Thanks also to my co-teachers Liz Hoiem (fall 2014) and Rachel Magee (fall 2015) for their inspiring collaborations in 490YS and elsewhere. And thanks to Danielle Chynoweth and Ashley Booth who were inspirational to me in developing this post.