Eric’s Blog

How a powerful story can spark political and social change

Why do some civic organizations succeed in their political and social goals and others don’t?

Consider that organizations with a powerful narrative (such the National Rifle Association) achieve their political goals more readily than those that don’t.

There are some excellent insights about this in Professor Hahrie Han’s book, “How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century” (Oxford University Press).

It’s obvious that storytelling has the power to engage and inspire people to action, but for activists, it goes far beyond that. Narrative is decisive in helping civic organizations find their path to power.

Professor Han points out that the narratives (which she calls “interpretive frames”) that organizations tell themselves have a decisive role to play in the organization’s structure and strategy.

She writes: “…framing is central to how leaders strategize because it identifies both challenging groups and adversaries and suggests potential allies, specifies the unjust conditions that must be changed and the appropriate strategies and tactics to achieve the desired ends.”

For example, after weeks of organizing an event and pulling it off successfully, telling the story of how that was done and what was achieved shows “how we do things” and the way forward. Another: stories about past victories and defeats show “how we won (or lost.)”

Narrative gives meaning to challenges, constraints, opportunities and change.

Stories also help organizations identify how to allocate scarce time and resources. “100s of people came to our event” vs. “we wrote a killer analysis” are very different paths to power and require very different resources.

Narrative helps us understand “which kind of organization are we?”

And stories encourage sustainability. Individual experiences (“personal narratives”) contribute to the collective identity of the organization, which is passed on from person to person.