I spent the weekend celebrating my friend Andy not being dead.
In February 2006 he went sledding, landed in a concrete culvert and broke his back in five places. It was an incredibly traumatic time for everyone involved. My partner and I traveled the two hours between our home and the hospital almost every day for over three weeks. Andy spent a considerable amount of time in ICU, underwent extensive reconstructive surgery, and then spent most of the next year healing. It was touch and go for awhile but, in the end, he made a full recovery.
Since then, February includes a new ritual for our circle of friends. We all travel to Bristol to celebrate ANDY (Andy’s Not Dead Yet). We play games (including Operation which is very funny to everyone who isn’t Andy) , drink adult beverages and, perhaps most importantly, tell stories* about our experience nursing Andy back to health.
Hill 1; Andy 0
Celebrating success is natural. The stories about the times we were at our best are easy to share (and make great copy for marketing materials). But while they are valuable, they don’t paint the whole picture.
We also need the stories about the dark times. the ones about dicey situations, stupid mistakes and general embarrassment. The soul of your organization is carried in these stories. They create bonds between the people who experienced the stories first hand and the people who came after. When shared with the right people at the right time, they can turn casual supporters into loyal fans. The key is making sure these stories get passed on.
The good news is your people already do that informally–in the bar after work, at the opening night party-after-the-party, in the office as an example to the new person on “what not to do.” This level of sharing is good–but to take full advantage of the power of story a full-on celebration is in order.
Celebrate something specific
It doesn’t have to be as traumatic as a week in ICU, three weeks in the hospital and a year of physical therapy, but it should be significant. Chances are the right moment has popped into your mind already. If you are stuck, think about the stories you are most likely to tell after a drink or two. Pick the event with the most stories attached.
Invite the right people
This should not be a public event. You need to feel completely safe to share the hard stuff. The right people to invite are the people that know the stories (staff, board) and the people you want to be more intimately involved in your work (very active volunteers, potential board members, possibly engaged donors) In the beginning it’s better to err on the side of being too exclusive. If after an event or two you find no one is learning anything new, it’s time to expand the invite list.
Finally, intimate is better. It’s hard to air dirty laundry in a group of 500+.
Provide a structure
You need free-form mingling time at the beginning and end of the event–but if you don’t provide some structure for sharing, it will be hard to get people started.
If your people aren’t shy, an open-mike style event is the easiest way to go. Get a sound system, some kind of stage and plenty of comfortable chairs. Start with a welcome message, any ground rules, and hand over the mike to people as they are inspired.
If you can’t imagine working like that, try sitting everyone in a large (or several small) circle(s) and share that way. The key is for everyone to be comfortable, have the chance to share if they’d like, and to be able to hear the storytellers.
Finally, the actual story-sharing portion of the event shouldn’t last more than 60-90 minutes–after that people will start to get antsy.
Food is a requirement
Wine is probably a good idea as well, but you know your people better than I. Also, don’t skimp on the food. There is something about eating together that helps people feel comfortable. That comfort will be key to the success of the experience.
Don’t make it a fundraiser
You will be tempted to use this opportunity to raise money. Please resist. If you need a sponsor or tickets to cover expenses, that is one thing, but as soon as you use the event as a way to improve your bottom line you will start to make subtle changes to raise more money. Before you know it, the spirit of the original event will be lost.
Are you ready to share? You don’t have to go into the gory details–just let us know the general idea of which defeat you’d be most likely to honor with your own ANDY-style party.*Most every night Andy would get disoriented and have drug induced hallucinations about people chasing him. Sometimes it was the mafia, sometimes he was a WWII fighter pilot; you get the idea. The only consistent part of the story was he needed to get away fast. This was a problem because his back was broken–so it was really, really important he stay in bed. Most nights were spent with one or more people sitting next to him assuring him he wasn’t being chased. He’d had an accident, he was in the hospital, he needed to stay still, remember? Yes. 10 minutes later–lather, rinse, repeat. He also had a tendency to use his hospital gown as a prop–but I promised not to get into that on the internet.