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Using Transparent Impact Storytelling to Build Trust

In an ever-evolving philanthropic landscape, foundations face an ongoing challenge: bridging the gap between their intentions and public perception.

The recent report by the Council on Foundations, "Philanthropy’s New Voice: Building Trust With Deeper Stories and Clear Language," sheds light on this issue and offers a roadmap for nonprofits and foundations to build trust through transparent and impactful storytelling.

The Identity Problem in Philanthropy

Foundations have long struggled with an identity problem. Despite their significant contributions to societal change, Americans often lack a clear understanding of what foundations do and how they affect daily lives. This "narrative vacuum" leaves space for harmful stories that question the intentions and effectiveness of philanthropic organizations. The Council on Foundations' report highlights this issue, emphasizing the need for a sector-wide narrative that accurately portrays the role and impact of foundations.

Key Insights from the Report

The report identifies several key insights from a comprehensive research effort, including a national survey, interviews, content analyses, and social media listening. Here are some of the most critical findings:

  1. Positive Views but Lack of Understanding: While Americans generally hold positive views about philanthropy, they have limited knowledge of the charitable sector's workings. Only 13.7% of survey respondents claimed to have a large amount of knowledge about foundations.

  2. Desire for Collaboration Over Regulation: Congressional staffers and policymakers prefer collaboration with foundations over increased regulation. They value foundations as partners in community support and seek more information about their operations to identify opportunities for collaboration.

  3. Need for a Shared Narrative: The philanthropic sector has not established a shared narrative to counter harmful stories effectively. This lack of a coherent story leaves foundations vulnerable to skepticism and criticism.

  4. Transparency in Storytelling: Both the public and policymakers desire more transparency from foundations. Specifics about how money is spent and how decisions are made are crucial elements that increase trust in foundations.

  5. Clear Language Over Jargon: Foundations' use of jargon and complex metaphors obscures their role in larger ecosystems of change. Clear, relatable language is essential for building understanding and trust.

Recommendations for Building Trust

Based on these insights, the report recommends several trust-building actions for foundations:

  1. Tell Stories Within Complex Ecosystems: Foundations should highlight their roles within broader ecosystems of change, balancing their contributions with those of other actors.

  2. Commit to Sector-Wide Storytelling: A collective effort to develop a shared narrative can help fill the narrative vacuum and build trust across the sector.

  3. Use Transparent and Clear Language: Avoid jargon and borrowed metaphors that obscure the foundations' roles. Use clear, relatable language that accurately describes their work.

  4. Support Long-Term Narrative Change: Foundations should commit the necessary time and resources to support and evaluate long-term narrative change work.

Implementing the Recommendations with Impact Storytelling

Understanding the need for better storytelling is only the first step. The next crucial phase is implementation, and this is where our "Impact Story Toolkit" comes into play. This toolkit provides a structured approach for social-good organizations to craft and share their impact stories effectively, aligning perfectly with the report's recommendations.

What Is an Impact Story?

An impact story is a narrative that combines anecdotal and quantitative evidence to illustrate the changes resulting from an organization’s efforts. It includes information on relevant activities, intended and unintended results, and the degree to which these results can be attributed to the organization's efforts.

How to Craft a Compelling Impact Story

The toolkit outlines a step-by-step process for creating compelling impact stories:

  1. Establish Measures to Determine Success: Collect data on outputs, quality, and outcomes to define your impact.

  2. Humanize the Data: Use tangible details and personal narratives to make the data relatable and memorable.

  3. Communicate Social Return on Investment (SROI): Translate outcomes and personal stories into a narrative that highlights the social ROI, making your organization attractive to funders.

  4. Map Impact Data onto a Traditional Story Structure: Use a familiar story structure (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) to make your impact story engaging and understandable.

Sharing Your Impact Story

Creating an impact story is only part of the journey. The next step is sharing it with the right audience through appropriate channels. The toolkit suggests:

  1. Define Your Audiences: Tailor your content to the interests of your target audience.

  2. Choose Your Storytelling Channels: Adjust the length and formality of your story based on the chosen platform, whether it's email, social media, or direct mail.

  3. Enlist Supporters: Encourage existing supporters to share your impact story, expanding your reach.

  4. Create a Continuous Feedback Loop: Communicate regularly with partners and funders to weave data into key messages and maintain engagement.


The Council on Foundations' report underscores the importance of transparent, nuanced storytelling in building trust and understanding in the philanthropic sector. By adopting the recommendations from the report and utilizing our "Impact Story Toolkit," nonprofits and foundations can effectively measure, communicate, and amplify their impact.

In an age where narratives shape beliefs and drive actions, embracing impactful storytelling is not just beneficial but essential. As foundations and nonprofits work together to fill the narrative vacuum with stories of genuine change and transparent operations, they can build stronger, trust-based relationships with donors, policymakers, and the communities they serve.

Together, we can create a more transparent and trusted philanthropic sector!

To learn how to leverage technology to track, measure, and communicate your unique impact, download our Ultimate Guide to Impact Measurement.


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