Permission to be Authentic

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network Fall 2013 Annual Conference conference.  This is a guest post by Betsey Russell, Owner Last Word, LLC.   Follow Betsey on Twitter – @BetseyPR.

BetseyRussellTwo of the overarching themes at the Communications Network conference just concluded in New Orleans were the elements of creating good stories and the importance of amplifying them.  It makes perfect sense. A beautiful, compelling story unshared is a wasted opportunity. And a poorly told or meaningless story that’s pushed out there to millions is a complete waste of time.

Grantmaker conferences and articles over the past couple of years have been rich with advice and wisdom about how to craft a compelling narrative to further worthwhile causes. But some of the best advice I’ve heard recently came from two separate ComNet keynotes, David Simon and Maria Hinojosa — be authentic.

Sounds great, especially when coming from folks in mass media, but what does that mean for an individual storyteller like me, or institutional storytellers like the foundations I work with?

This is the uncomfortable part. Authenticity means stripping down the trappings of propriety, correctness and yes, even brand, to get to the basic humanity within the story you want to tell.  It means showing at least a little bit of who you really are, by showing why you care about something or someone in your story.

For the vast majority of folks who work in private philanthropy, this is an intimidating – if not downright terrifying – concept. Exposing our true thoughts and formative experiences to our peers would be akin to running stark naked across the stage during the next conference’s keynote address.

“Besides,” we’re quick to point out, “As funders, it’s not our own story that we really want to tell, but the stories of our grantees. Yes, yes. That’s it. They are the ones whose stories we wish to amplify!”

Good point. But here’s a challenge to consider: Suppose I dangled a huge check above your head and said, “This is meant for you, because I like what I’ve seen so far. But now, I want you to show me your purest and truest self. Oh, and if I like that, I want to share it with the world.”

How authentic would you dare to be? When compensation and acceptance are so rarely tied to true authenticity, how likely are any of us to tell the stories in our hearts versus the stories we’ve shaped to impress?

Authenticity requires a great deal of permission — from ourselves, from our peers, from those who support us. Creating that permissive environment doesn’t happen with the wave of a wand. It takes a great deal of trust, positive reinforcement, honesty, and mutual sharing of selves. It takes risk on all sides.

So, is true authenticity worth it? Is it something we can actually attain? These are the questions I’m pondering in the wake of ComNet 2013.

What do you think?

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