About halfway through the day, I asked what I thought would be a simple question, an easy chance to prove to everyone how much they already knew about storytelling in their organizations.
‘How many of you know your organization’s origin story?’
Out of 60 people, maybe ten hands went up.
I was floored.
An organization’s origin story contains the DNA of its culture, mission, and way of being in the world. Having a shared understanding of an organization’s beginnings creates a bond between everyone associated with that organization, from clients to Board members to volunteers and contributors.
The first time I fully understood the power of the origin story was at a breakfast I attended shortly after signing on as Development Director for My Friend’s Place, a drop-in resource center for Homeless Youth in Los Angeles. Each year, the founder of the organization took the staff to breakfast to commemorate the day it came into being.
At this time, the founder, Steve LePore, hadn’t been directly associated with My Friend’s Place for years. He’d moved on to found two other organizations. But still, each year, he hosted the breakfast at a local cafe and, in addition to getting to know the new staff members, shared the story of how the organization started.
I’d heard the story during my interview process. But there was something different, and immeasurably more powerful, hearing from someone who had lived it. As Steve spoke, I could feel everyone, new folks like me and veterans alike, falling under the story’s spell.
When he finished–the whole story lasted only five minutes or so–we all felt inspired, connected, and part of something greater than ourselves. Perhaps more importantly, we felt empowered to share the story of our organization’s beginnings.
I returned to the organization’s origin story time and time again during the four years I spent with the organization. Any presentation I gave to prospective contributors began with the story, tracing a direct line from the values that drove Steve and his colleagues to launch My Friend’s Place to the comprehensive services it offered 20 years later. In addition to helping people understand the organization’s culture and values, sharing the story allowed them to see how they, and their contribution, fit in to the My Friend’s Place family and mission.
Each time I shared the story, I felt like I was continuing an almost tribal tradition, an oral storytelling ritual that Steve had consciously woven into the fabric of My Friend’s Place and that continued after his departure.
The power of the origin story went beyond culture and community building. It also provided crucial insight for the organization’s strategic decision making process.
If you’ve ever been through a ‘strategic planning process,’ you know that it’s generally pretty rigorous. A highly paid consultant comes in and interviews Key Stakeholders to create a snapshot of the organization’s current state. They then do a Sector Analysis to identify Growth Opportunities, Threats, and Strategic Priorities. Then there’s the Financial Analysis and Planning.
After six months or a year, the consultant presents the 3 or 5 Year Plan at a Board Meeting. There’s a vote to adopt the plan. And then, all too often, the plan gets filed on a shelf where it sits until the process begins again.
There are many reasons that Strategic Plans fail to be useful, but I think that one of the principle culprits is the tendency to focus on the present and future without considering the past, all the way back to the organization’s beginnings.
An examination of an organization’s origins reveals threads that run through its present and can help guide decision regarding the future. Without an understanding of those threads, a strategic plan risks misalignment with the organization’s history. It may make sense from a business perspective, but if the culture piece doesn’t work, then the plan won’t work.
Culture, as management guru Peter Drucker reportedly said, eats strategy for breakfast.
In the case of My Friend’s Place, a return to the organization’s founding story and the values it seeded–active response to community needs, meeting the young people where they were at, and ensuring the long-term availability of services–guided a series of tough decisions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Without that story as a foundation, the organization may have shuttered its doors or agreed to an acquisition by a larger nonprofit.
Since leaving My Friend’s Place in 2010, I’ve had the chance to work with hundreds of organizations and leaders across the social impact and start-up worlds. I’ve found that leaders and organizations that have a deep connection to their origin stories tend to have a more aligned strategy and stronger culture. Conversely, those that have become disconnected from their origins or have consciously worked to distance themselves from their beginnings tend to exhibit signs of mission drift, dysfunctional culture, and internal conflict around strategic direction.
To be clear, staying connected to an origin story doesn't mean that the organization has to stay stagnant. It just means that any growth or major changes should consider and incorporate the organization's founding story or mythology.
So: I was floored when so few people at the workshop were familiar with their organization’s origins. Their response changed the shape of the curriculum I had planned and we spent about an hour going through the process of starting to re-connect with and craft origin stories. Here are some of the questions I used to guide the exercise:
- What was the inciting incident that led to the organization’s founding?
- What shifted for the founder personally that made it imperative that they undertake the organization’s mission?
- What challenges did the founder and organization face as it took shape?
- What values and priorities are embedded in the events above? If we only knew the organization’s origin story and nothing that happened since its founding, what would we know about the organization?
These questions are just a start. Take another look at them. If you can’t answer them about your organization or, if you’re an impact driven solo-preneur type, yourself, please take a moment or ten to reflect, consider, and craft your story. If you need help, feel free to reach out.
Your origins matter and the time will be well spent.