Tapping into the Power of Storytelling in Western New York


By Meredith Carswell-Sheline
Communications and Public Relations Officer

The Learning Disability Association of Western New York (LDA of WNY) shares something in common with Wonder Woman, Batman and Black Panther:

They all have a compelling origin story.

Granted, LDA of WNY’s story doesn’t involve super powers, and hasn’t yet been turned into a blockbuster comic book or movie franchise. But it is the inspiring, true tale of Rachel Harris, a grandmother concerned about the significant learning disabilities her grandson experienced in school in 1965.  Harris created a support group with nine other parents that has grown over the past half century into a crucial service provider that today offers a full range of support services to over 1,200 individuals in eight counties of Western New York annually.

Talk about a Wonder Woman!

At the recent kickoff workshop for the second annual StoryGrowing Western New York program, acclaimed author, speaker and storytelling guru Andy Goodman cited the LDA of WNY’s origin story as a strong example of what he calls the “How We Started” story—one of six types of stories he believes every organization should be prepared to tell.

Thanks to a partnership between the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York and The John R. Oishei Foundation, nine Western New York nonprofit organizations will have the opportunity to learn how to better tell their own stories.

Growing Our StoryGrowing Program

StoryGrowing is a free, six-month training program that offers teaching, coaching and mentoring to help organizations build their internal capacity to identify and apply various story types and use stories in advocacy, development and community outreach. Teams will also develop skills in branding, communications, and in using tools such as video, digital media and public relations to tell their stories.  It is our hope that at the end of the six month program, participating organizations are able to raise awareness of their mission, increase fundraising and engage their community more effectively.

The Health Foundation first launched the StoryGrowing program in our Central New York region in 2016 to help community-based organizations enhance and expand their ability to effectively share their story, and to nurture their growth through effective communications. In 2017, we partnered with The John R. Oishei Foundation to bring the program to our Western New York region. Eight local organizations participated the first year, and we recently selected nine organizations that will comprise the second cohort.

Please join me in congratulating our 2019 StoryGrowing WNY teams:

  • Buffalo Center for the Arts & Technology
  • Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
  • Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network, Inc.
  • Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), University at Buffalo
  • Childcare Resource Network
  • Community Services for Every1
  • Horizon Health Services
  • Preservation Buffalo Niagara
  • Western New York Book Arts Center

The teams were selected from a strong field of 36 applicants. It’s encouraging to see how many community-based organizations in our region understand that effective storytelling is critical to their mission.

Changing the Story in Western New York

The kickoff workshop, titled “Change the Story, Change the World,” drew more than 250 representatives to the Lexus Club at KeyBank Center in January. Workshop participants engaged in hands-on learning with storytelling exercises and learned about story structure—the elements that make a narrative compelling.

In addition to highlighting LAD of WNY as an example of a “How We Started” story, Goodman also shared a poignant video of children talking about homelessness from the Family Promise of New York website as an example of what he calls the “Why We Do What We Do” story.

The other four types of stories Goodman believes everyone in an organization should be prepared to tell are:

  • “Emblematic Success”—Stories about people whose lives are better because of the work the organization does.
  • “Core Values”—Stories about people in your organization who embody your values.
  • “Striving to Improve”—Primarily internal stories you tell within an organization that illustrate how it learned from failure.
  • “Where We Are Going”—Narratives that show what the future will look like if your organization succeeds at its mission.

Learning how to tell stories that engage people and move them to action can help shape a brighter future for all of us.

We at the Health Foundation are thrilled that, as a result of our partnership with The John R. Oishei Foundation, a new group of community-based organizations in Western New York will learn how to tap into the power of storytelling. And that power will help them to translate the important work they do into stories that inspire and motivate others.

Come to think of it, that does sound like a pretty super power after all.