New narrative? No thanks


Andrew Milner


Imagine my embarrassment! A word whose meaning I thought I’d known all along and I was wrong – at least, as far as philanthropy’s construction of it is concerned. It turns out that what people in the sector call ‘narrative’ is not, after all, ‘a recital of events, usually written or spoken’ as I and the Pocket Oxford Dictionary had both believed but something more like a set of assumptions drawn from a series of events or transactions about how such transactions should occur and will continue to occur. In other words, the ‘narrative’ is not just descriptive, it’s explanatory and – this is the crucial bit – it has predictive force.

In an article in the December 2017 edition of Alliance, Oksana Oracheva and Barry Knight talk of a ‘traditional’ narrative of philanthropy and a ‘new narrative ….. based on the experience of pioneers in emerging market economies’ (the authors are quoting from another source but since they are using it to support their argument, I imagine they approve of the sentiment). American organisation, the Narrative Initiative claims to develop ‘the skills needed to align voices and strategies, shape media and public conversation, and broaden perspectives and possibilities’. Underneath both of these is the idea that a narrative doesn’t just tell how things happened, but lays down a pattern which similar sequences of events – in this case giving – will follow in the future. Narrative Initiative’s website also adds that ‘images, symbols and stories reflect deep narratives about the world around us and who we are.’ Apart from noting in passing the curious distinction between narratives and stories, making narrative the exemplar, rather than the example, in this way seems to me to put things the wrong way round. I’d argue that narratives reflect – among other things – images and symbols, not the reverse.

Of course, words can be redefined. ‘Gay’ no longer means ‘light-hearted, sportive, mirthful, showy, brilliant’ (Pocket Oxford Dictionary again), it means ….well – gay. The British popular media is rapidly redefining the word ‘celebrity’ to mean someone prepared to subject themselves to any humiliation in order to be on TV. So perhaps I should just get over my trivial semantic confusion? Maybe so. But there’s a more serious danger: in adapting the meaning of ‘narrative’ as those in philanthropy seem to be doing, you unconsciously endorse the view that it is something that is prescriptive, not just descriptive, that there is one way of looking at something – the narrative – and that events must either be coerced into this template or discarded. And if you simply replace one narrative of philanthropy with another, similarly monolithic set of assumptions and preferences, you’ve gone out of your way to avoid someone else’s trap, only to fall into a similar one of your own making.

In the title of their article, Oracheva and Knight ask whether philanthropy needs a new story. I don’t believe it does. There are already plenty of narratives of philanthropy – each philanthropic transaction is one. People – even institutions – go on giving without necessarily paying attention to, let alone conforming to, the narrative. What philanthropy needs, I believe, is to draw attention to the many stories that there already are, but to see them as stories, not as paradigms. If you want to make or see patterns in them, well, that’s alright, too. As long as you don’t treat that pattern as unbreakable. As long as you don’t allow that pattern to dictate what you think philanthropy was, is and should be.

Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine

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