Friday, May 6, 2011

The New Age of Storytelling

For several weeks the news has been crazy with news about Greg Mortenson and his alleged truthiness in his memoirs and reports from his non-profit, Central Asia Institute. This is part of a larger trend of Americans' general distrust of both memoirs and non-profits. I never really cared too much about the memoir issue. And despite the fervor over A Million Little Pieces, at the end of the day, readers didn't care. They read for a good story, just like they watch reality TV for a good story. Evidently there's some attraction to a "real" story, but that's a fuzzy definition. After all, we all know the editing that goes into reality TV and are not surprised--or deterred--by the similar story arcs in every dating show/addiction memoir/brave truth-telling.

The issue of non-profits, however, hits closer to home. I work for non-profits and constantly struggle to tell the specific story of the organization and our clients/audience in a way that will raise money from foundations, corporations, governments, and individuals. I explain long-term change, I limit how I use numbers, but funders--who complain about how non-profits represent their work--want to hear that I am changing millions of kids' lives on a dollar day and am instantly able to change them from slum-dwellers to university graduates. I do my best to balance these conflicting sides, and it is possible to do without lying. But it's not easy.

Non-profits are under scrutiny in part because we are exempt from taxes. We get audited every year to prove that we are working for the greater good. Our tax returns are public records (remember this, journalists, it's super easy to see what Planned Parenthood does with their money). But think of the corporations who get out of paying taxes without having to be transparent about there that money goes. Corporations that employ more people--and screw more of them over when they fail.

The bigger question, as it alway is, is "what is truth?" An annoying college student question, yes, but there we are. When we tell a story, we truncate the timeline, we make everyone wittier or stupider or prettier or uglier, but none of this actually changes the story. It makes the story more interesting to hear. This is not lying. This is not saying that 50,000 girls are going to school rather than being prostituted or beaten. In a crowded media environment, how do we cut through the clutter and get people to really listen to our stories? It is not by describing three separate trips or the 501c3 paperwork. So what are we left to do?