Many people are familiar with the powerful talk Jim Gilliam gave at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2011 called “The Internet Is My Religion,” within which he details how the internet helped him receive a double-lung transplant that saved his life (for a second time), and secured his belief that “God is just what happens when humanity is connected.” But very few know the woman who worked with him to tell this story, and has since been doing the same with every person employed by NationBuilder, the company Gilliam founded in 2009.
Lea Endres first crossed paths with Gilliam at a friend’s birthday party in 2010, encouraged to connect given their shared interest in activism and filmmaking. Endres had recently left her role as Chief of Staff at Van Jones’ Green for All to write a screenplay, having originally moved to Los Angles to pursue acting and writing but repeatedly being pulled away by her passion for social causes. She’d spent the majority of her career helping to start nonprofit organizations and facilitating the leadership development needed to scale growth. Gilliam had co-founded a production company with Robert Greenwald called Brave New Films after he was asked by Greenwald to help with a documentary on the Iraq war. It was during the initial screenings for this film that Gilliam first witnessed the power of storytelling to build authentic community and, through the internet, to create transformative impact. Endres says that within minutes of meeting, the two were discussing ways they could work together.
Endres was in pre-production on her film, but made time to coach Gilliam on delivering his now-famous talk and, elated by the impact it was having, he turned to her one day and said, “I want you to do for everyone in my company what you just did for me.” By this he meant helping them to uncover their own unique narratives, and link those stories to why they chose to work at NationBuilder, a community organizing software company that provides its customers with the infrastructure and tools needed to tell stories, build community, manage ongoing communications, and conduct financial transactions. When pressed on why employee storytelling matters, Endres says the company is rooted in the belief that you can’t really create what you’re meant to create unless you first know who you are. But once you have this clarity, you can optimize your contribution in ways that are truly meaningful, both personally and professionally.
Endres started out as an advisor, but officially joined the company as Chief of Staff in February of 2012 after realizing it would be the perfect opportunity to combine her love of storytelling and social impact. Her first step was meeting with every employee for 60-90 minutes, discussing their entire life up to joining NationBuilder, and making note of the themes uncovered. A second session was spent reciting back what she heard and delving deeper, and a third session focused on refining the narrative, ensuring it was authentic, and helping each person get comfortable telling their story. Then it was time to have them share their stories with each other. During the company’s end-of-year summit everyone broke out into groups composed of 6-8 people, and practiced. The connectivity in the room was palpable. People were learning things about coworkers they saw every day that might otherwise take years to learn (if at all), shifting perspectives, and deepening the level of respect. After nearly two years of beta testing the program internally, Endres is now handing off lead responsibility to Kara Scharwath, the company’s new “Storytelling Director” who will be in charge of picking up where Endres left off, and growing the department.
It’s a natural fit for Scharwath, who grew up devouring books while her mother worked at a local library, and developed a voracious curiosity for exploring different worlds. This passion combined with an over-achieving nature led her to try many things, but once learning began to stagnate she’d grow bored and move on. After working for startups and then helping a market research company scale growth over its first five years, she began her own consulting practice before deciding to attend Presidio Graduate School, an MBA program that’s dedicated to social and environmental progress. It was here, during countless team projects, that she discovered her natural knack for synthesizing large amounts of information and communicating it in a way that was easy for others to understand. She soon began blogging for TriplePundit and Sustainable Industries before joining NationBuilder, originally tasked with managing the company’s external communications. The transition to internal storytelling excites Scharwath in part because she’ll be provided with an endless number of personal stories to explore, and bring to life.
Endres will stay involved, but given the fact the company currently has 91 employees, she acknowledges that the program she created has now become too time-consuming for one person to handle. Accelerated growth is a luxury problem for a startup to have. Indeed, in addition to $250,000 in seed funding provided by Gilliam and $500,000 in angel investment, NationBuilder has secured $6.25 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, and another $8 million in Series B funding led by Omidyar Network. This has allowed the company to hire additional staff and grow their customer base quickly. They currently have over 5,000 customers on 6 continents in 55 countries including Canada, Australia, Germany, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Kenya, and Venezuela. And last year alone they helped their customers raise over $110 million in donations, and recruit over 720,000 volunteers.
NationBuilder is adamantly non-partisan, with customers landing on all sides of the political spectrum, and including nonprofits, startups, established businesses, artists, activists, and basically anyone that’s seeking a mechanism to assist community engagement. Some specific examples demonstrating this range include I AM THAT GIRL, a nonprofit organization that’s focused on empowering girls by helping them discover their innate worth and purpose; Leslie Rutledge, a Republican running for state Attorney General; Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, which honors the death of Trayvon Martin by organizing tens of thousands of supporters around the country to end violence and racial discrimination; Bitcoin Alliance of Canada (yes you just read that correctly),which spreads awareness about this currency to Canadian consumers; and Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, a compassionate community of nonbelievers (a.k.a. atheists) to live better, help often, and wonder more.
When asked if NationBuilder takes their customers through a similar storytelling boot camp, Endres says they’re currently developing a network of storytellers – a group of external experts that will be certified by NationBuilder to assist customers, should they need help in identifying and honing their narrative. Says Endres, “We know you can’t build a community unless you share your story, and it has to be authentic, so we’re providing the infrastructure needed.” It’s deeply rewarding to witness authentic community drive transformative impact, both through the software they provide and internally, through the program she created. And while the company doesn’t yet have quantitative metrics to prove it, Endres says employee performance and retention couldn’t be better. Plus, it can’t hurt with attracting top talent and new customers when your people are out in the world, clearly articulating an emotional connection to their work.