Tommy Tobin

Tommy is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he earned the Deans’ Award for Academic Accomplishment and led the Stanford Project on Hunger to provide 100,000 meals for his community.

Of Narrative and Social Entrepreneurship: A Powerful Story

Submitted by Tommy Tobin & Geoff Finger, Ashoka Spring Associates

Narrative has the ability to inform, inspire, educate, and communicate. We share our vision through stories; and through these stories our experiences.  Weaving common threads through public story-telling creates the potential for community growth, enrichment, and understanding.

As Inc. magazine has noted, Great Storytellers make Great Leaders. In fact, the Boston Globe reports that stories can be useful in medicine, helping patients “make meaning” in their lives.

At the Ashoka U Exchange in February at Duke University, Ashoka’s resident expert in public-narrative Roshan Paul talked about stories as a tool for personal development and social change. Roshan completed a focus in leadership and public narrative for social change at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and has mentored many social entrepreneurs in story-telling and public narrative.

According to Roshan, by sharing the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now, we construct a powerful narrative that is not only encouraging, but compelling.

Personal stories humanize the speaker. The story of self is not bragging; it’s revealing who you are, how you got here, and often elicits a transformative moment along the way. Similar stories can demonstrate your credentials without listing a verbal resume, by elaborating on your competencies through experiences rather than titles. With what Echoing Green calls a “Moment of Obligation,” the audience gets wrapped up in the action after hearing what compels you to do this work.

With your story of us, you tell the audience about your community and about how your experience meshes with theirs. Whether your community is a place, a race, an organization, or a situation, weaving the story of us creates unity between speaker and audience.  If you can construct a compelling narrative, your story of us can inspire others to support, and potentially fund, your cause.

The speaker concentrates on the need and specific action required; the audience sees the need to help, and more importantly help now. A vivid description of the story of now illustrates the immediacy of the action. This is “The Ask,” where you describe what you need and explain why it’s important and pressing.  What makes for a robust and compelling Ask is a sense of connection cultivated by the story of self and the story of us.

Think about storytelling as a way to get people excited about your idea. Also, consider storytelling in pitching Social Entrepreneurship on your campus, if you can weave a compelling narrative about your institution, your idea, and your vision, you can build a strong case for community buy-in.

Whether Fantasy or Visionary, Stories have the ability to unite, engage, and inspire people

Such practices have already worked for us.


When I pitch about a plan to use edible food waste to feed the community, I conjure images of the buffet line and ask where does the food go? Most of us have eaten at buffets before, so it is a familiar concept. All too often it goes to waste when it could be fed to others. I quantify the issue and demonstrate how I came to this work. With the story of now, I tell my audience what they can do to help.


It’s about art.  Often, the most effective way to connect someone to art is not through a discussion about art, but a story about an experience.  As Company Manager of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, I often spoke to diverse audiences about the nature of Cunningham’s work. In the process, I conveyed the experience of watching and performing the work, achieving the sense of community and action with the audience.

About Tommy Tobin

Tommy is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he earned the Deans’ Award for Academic Accomplishment and led the Stanford Project on Hunger to provide 100,000 meals for his community. He is currently a Spring Associate with the Ashoka U team.

About Geoff Finger

Geoff Finger is a graduate of Reed College, completed a Watson Fellowship on community arts programs around the world, and most recently worked as company manager for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He is currently working as a Coporate Strategy Associate at Ashoka.