03 September 2005

Story Telling as a Conservation Strategy

In the conservation community, when we talk about our work, we talk mostly about bucks and acres. We focus on how much land we protected, the species saved or how much money it took to do the deal.

What we leave behind is the back-story, which has more to do with the human communities affected by our work -- the families and individuals with ties to the lands and waters and the natural, life-sustaining services that provide their livelihood. There is always a story behind the scenes -- beyond the deal -- that is more compelling.

Several years ago, I learned about the work of Peter Forbes, who was spending a year or more as a fellow with his group, the Trust for Public Land. He spent much of that time examining their deals, looking for, and telling the back-stories. He gathered the stories, developing a method for ferreting them out of the muck. The result was The Story Handbook. I talked to Peter about his work several years ago at the annual Land Trust Alliance Rally and found an ally, someone whose thinking on the subject dwarfs mine.

My discipline in the conservation arena is fundraising; I've spent the last 14 years raising money from some wonderful people to protect places we care about together. I wanted to find a practical application for this thinking and a venue to test my assumptions. I'd been leading fundraising workshops for the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association over the years and approached them about an idea for a new workshop.

I called it "Telling Our Story: Connecting Place & People to Inspire Transformational Giving." I lead participants through an exercise in uncovering the back-story and bring it to the foreground. Really, it was about changing the nature of our conversations about conservation. I wanted the conversation to be more about the needs we fulfill, not about needs we have, and about what we can solve and what we can only serve. The idea was to focus on people, their values, and the impact we were having on issues and on people.

The participants had ten minutes to create their story, then pair off and tell it to a partner. Bringing them back together, I shared Forbes's "Story Sheets" concept from the Handbook, pulling out six essential points for a different kind of story telling:

Describe the place from personal experience
State the context for the conservation project
Broader historical context
Larger Social Good Being Addressed
Relationships Strengthened and Preserved
Convey Emotion and Core Values

The group then had to redraft their story along these lines, retell the story to their partner and then talk about what changed in their story, whether it was more compelling told in this way. The results were great; people told better stories in this new context. Moreover, their stories were less jargon-riddled and numbers oriented. They told real stories to which others could relate.

I went back to a couple of people in the organization I work for, The Nature Conservancy, and shared this idea. They latched onto it and took it further than I could ever imagine. The next thing I knew, we held a conference for fundraisers devoted to this concept of story telling. Peter Forbes was a keynote speaker and we passed out copies of The Story Handbook as required reading. Then one of our regions adopted the method, instructing their field-based staff in the art of telling their stories in a more personal and compelling way. Beautiful.

I continue to explore this vein, after afflicting the organization with this idea virus of story telling. Most recently, I have worked with a few colleagues to collect stories from the field and from partners and incorporate them into our toolbox for staff. Later this month we will publish a small book for a meeting in Monterey, Saving Our Seas: Stories of Marine Conservation. I'm excited about this effort and hope others will be.

People connect to stories; it is a tradition as old as human communication itself. We are a story telling species. Stories connect people to other people and to the lands and waters we protect. Like the songlines of the Aborigines, stories map a place in a way beyond symbols and geography. Stories are our way of connecting with each other and more broadly with the world. Think about it: when you get together with your friends, do you share stories?

If we're going to build a conservation ethic, we need to share our stories, to nurture a culture of story telling. We need to get at the heart of what makes our work relevant and important to people, to the future of our species and those with whom we share the earth, our island home.

What's your story?

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