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Storytelling for Systems Change

Listening to Understand

What does it take for government and philanthropy to listen to stories meaningfully?

We believe that stories can change lives, communities, and systems.

To make real change, we need to get better at telling stories. But governments and philanthropy also need to get better at listening to them. 

The Centre for Public Impact, Dusseldorp Forum, and Hands Up Mallee have been exploring the role of storytelling in systems change. For this report, we turn our attention from storytelling to storylistening.

What we heard

We spoke to government officials, funders, academics, and other practitioners about creating the conditions for stories to be heard by those who need to hear them.

Three key questions guided these conversations:

How are stories currently used by government and philanthropy?

“Stories allow governments to hear and see the realities of their policies and practices from the ground up.”

What gets in the way of stories being listened to and understood?

“All the things people think about stories can also be true of data. There can be bias, inaccuracies, and omissions. People should question data just as much as they question stories.”

What might be done to build the readiness of government and philanthropy to listen more deeply?

“Bring government, philanthropy, and storytellers together to have brave conversations while avoiding the blame that tends to shut these conversations down.”

It started with me telling my own story. I was caring for my mum Joan, who was living with vascular dementia. We both felt invisible, so I started a blog. I heard from people who recognised themselves in our story. In turn, we recognised ourselves in theirs. It helped us feel less alone. I learnt so much from them.

Tommy Whitelaw, National Lead for Caring and Outreach, Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland Read Tommy's full story

Stories are powerful. They reveal so much about our environment and ourselves. But that can make it hard to listen to them. It isn’t often that people come to tell us what the government is doing right. And it means reliving grief and trauma; that’s the reality.

Nour Sidawi, UK Civil Service Read Nour's full story

People have to tell their own stories and we need to make the effort to hear those stories, not just the ones who will fill out a survey. We can’t centre ourselves in the process. It’s so important that we talk about creating a space where they can contribute meaningfully and we’ve made it safe for them. We heard feedback from people: ‘this is the first time it felt like my voice mattered’.

Calgary City, Read the full story

Read the report

In honour of what we’ve learned about what it means to listen and the nonlinear nature of stories, we present a rich tapestry of insights. We invite you to embark on your unique journey through this report.

Explore it from beginning to end, or choose your adventure amongst the captivating visuals and audio elements.

Read the report

Explore the first phase

Dive into the first phase of this work, Storytelling for Systems Change: Insights from the Field. In this report, we share insights about how stories can be used to:

  • Change the system

  • Evaluate and showcase the changes occurring in communities

  • Encourage new perspectives, build understanding, and challenge traditional power dynamics

  • Provide a form of healing

Read the first report

Where we want to go next

If you’re interested in exploring how storytelling and listening can be used to both enable and celebrate community-led systems change work and would like to be part of the next stage of our story, we’d love to hear from you.