Tell Your Story

Aug 7, 2017 | Environment, Features, Philanthropy Journal

Storytelling is a valuable tool for all nonprofits who are working to engage their members or a wider audience. Sharing personal stories of challenges and triumph, particularly in a relatable and emotionally engaging way, can evoke empathy for the individual, the nonprofit and the cause as a whole.

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Kira Sadler

In the woods, the air is still and quiet. The ground is warm from the sunshine that beats down on the hillside all day, but mostly, it’s dark. The lightest breeze brings the smell of ponderosa bark and lupine from the forest that surrounds your perch. You hear the faint call of a poorwill from another ridge just as the moon is starting to peek over a mountain across the valley. A browsing deer crackles pine needles as she passes close by, startling you. You continue to wait patiently.

Suddenly, you think you hear something. Was it just your imagination? No, there it is again! Distinctly, a four-note set of hoots sounds in the distance up the ridge. Your heart flutters as you grab your gear and sprint up the hillside in pursuit, hoping above all else to hear those four notes again.

Laurel Mundy tracks spotted owls in Washington State, and while this bird species has had its fair share of controversy over the years, the story about her experience — shared in the Voices for Biodiversity article “Waiting for Owls” — amounts to so much more than an endangered bird debate.

Planet Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction event — only the sixth such event in its history. Many scientists are sounding the alarm that biodiversity loss is just as dangerous to humanity as climate change. Because humans are responsible for this crisis, mitigating this trend is still possible, but our window of opportunity is quickly disappearing.

Voices for Biodiversity was founded in 2009 by Dr. Tara Lumpkin in response to increased awareness that a global biodiversity crisis is under way. It was created based on the idea that many of the actions required to confront the current biodiversity crisis would require people to shift their perceptions to a worldview that demonstrates understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity and the rest of the natural world.

But how do you change people’s perceptions and worldviews? After much exploration and research, it turns out that storytelling is key. Voices for Biodiversity now successfully engages in storytelling to empower our contributors and shift the perceptions of our readers. Our stories showcase human successes and failures in caring for biodiversity, challenging our readers’ worldviews concerning this important topic.

Voices for Biodiversity is unique because we specifically share biodiversity-oriented stories by those whose voices often go unheard. We use a grassroots approach to create a diverse community of environmental advocates through storytelling. Often missing from conversations on biodiversity loss are the voices of local peoples, many of whom have valuable insights and knowledge of the natural world. Voices for Biodiversity believes that these voices help create a more complete picture and increase the probability of progress on these issues.

Dr. Tara Lumpkin

Our inclusive community welcomes people from all walks of life: local peoples, students, youth and scientists, and also engages smaller, mostly local nonprofits working on biodiversity issues. By encouraging local and indigenous peoples, students and “non-experts” to speak out on our multimedia platform, we bring important voices to global conversations on biodiversity loss.

Inclusivity does pose its challenges. We often receive submissions from individuals who do not speak English as their first language, and from those who are not experts in the practice of storytelling. Our solution is to employ unique and talented editors who work hard to shape engaging, personal testimonies.

In 2013, a study published in Science found that individuals who read narratives containing in-depth portrayals of individuals’ thoughts and inner feelings were more able to understand worldviews contrary to their own, and even resulted in increased empathy for such individuals and perspectives. 

Storytelling is one of the few tools that can change people’s worldviews. Mundy’s story ignites the imagination and emotions of readers as they share the adventure of tracking endangered spotted owls. The recruitment of imagination and emotions engages more of a reader’s brain, significantly adds to the experience of reading and creates a story that is easily remembered, especially when compared with articles full of scientific jargon and numerical statistics.

Storytelling is what Voices for Biodiversity does, and it is a valuable tool for all nonprofits who are working to engage their members or a wider audience. Sharing personal stories of challenges and triumph, particularly in a relatable and emotionally engaging way, can evoke empathy for the individual, the nonprofit and the cause as a whole.

Kira Sadler, MSc is Program Manager for Voices for Biodiversity, a nonprofit using storytelling to help mitigate biodiversity loss and the sixth great extinction event. Her educational background includes a BS in Anthropology from the University of Colorado, Boulder; and an MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, in Canterbury, England. Kira’s dedication to the wellbeing of all species on planet Earth, human and animal alike drives her work on the environment and human equality. She is also a writer, photographer and is training to be a Pilates instructor.

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