Nonprofit storytelling—beware of impact stories that don’t link to public policy



You can’t swing a cat these days (I never would) without hitting a storytelling workshop for nonprofits. It’s kind of the new silver bullet for conveying organizational impact.

I’m a big fan of stories, but I’m a little concerned about the approach the nonprofit sector seems to be taking.

What concerns me is the drive to tell episodic stories of individual success without tying them into a larger thematic policy context. Making an emotional connection is essential, but it’s not enough.

Very few of these impact stories reveal underlying causes, or assign responsibility for those causes to policymakers and the citizens who vote for them. This tends to reinforce the dominant American frame of individual rather than societal responsibility for the solution of social problems—a frame that the media has helped create and perpetuate.

By telling stories about their impact on individual lives, nonprofits and foundations may be shooting themselves in the foot with that silver bullet. Such storytelling can garner dollars and support (no small thing, I realize), but it doesn’t necessarily lead to social change. Nonprofits have to get more intentional about using impact stories to achieve both their short-term survival goals and their long-term social change goals.

Often, annual reports, newsletters, web sites, or videos that string together emotionally evocative stories about how a nonprofit has helped a few of its beneficiaries are fashioned for fund-raising. They pluck heartstrings, but don’t connect those people’s situations to the larger context of public decision making. In fact, they can leave readers and viewers with the impression that solutions to social problems are up to individuals and nonprofits, rather than to the public.

For instance, a nonprofit tells a moving impact story about a troubled youth who’s turned her life around. The nonprofit may get a temporary boost from that, but the story does nothing to show the larger context that led to her troubles or to explain how citizens acting together can eliminate the obstacles she faced. It’s all about her success at bettering herself and the organization’s role in those efforts. There’s no societal accountability built in.

Without tying stories of individuals to our collective responsibility for the policies and systems that have shaped their lives—we’re unintentionally reinforcing the notion that their troubles were their own doing. At the same time, we’re preventing audience members from making the connection between themselves and the people in the story. They may feel momentary sympathy and admiration for the story’s protagonist, but they are still just consumers of the story, not participants in it. We need to help citizens understand they play an influential role in any story about social issues.

The news media are notorious for gobbling up episodic stories about individuals. Media relations experts may tell you that’s the way to get headlines, but it’s not the way to change society. Most news stories strip away context to a point where the goal is provoking a superficial emotional response, certainly not empowering citizens to take action against injustice.

Here are a few broad-stroke examples of how news (and advertising) use individual responsibility frames in their storytelling.

  1. Though study after study shows that public policies and systems are a huge influence in the American obesity problem, public discussion about this issue still focuses on dieting and self-restraint as the solution. If someone’s overweight—it’s their own fault and their responsibility to change.
  2. In the environmental realm, much more attention is paid to how we should each change our individual behavior than to how we can collectively make big  policy changes that would have much deeper impact.
  3. In health care, the emphasis is on individuals making sure they get tested for disease rather than targeting the causes of those diseases through public policy change.

The last thing the nonprofit sector should be doing is feeding the media episodic stories—that’s counterproductive to its long-term goals for social change. It’s easy to jump on the impact storytelling bandwagon—especially when you’re hard pressed for funding. But think carefully about the real story you’re trying to tell. Don’t let it just be about one person’s struggle or one family’s success or one neighborhood’s make-over. Ensure citizens understand their role in righting wrongs and exactly what actions they need to take.

One way is to tell the individual’s story first—grabbing the reader’s attention—then concisely explain who’s responsible for creating these conditions, what the potential solutions are, and how the public can drive toward those solutions. Weave in a compelling statistic or two—appeal to both sides of the brain.

Please read this recent interview with Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and the author of Is Anyone Responsible, on the difference between episodic and thematic stories and how they influence citizen understanding of public issues. Remember his remarks when you’re writing web copy, news releases, video scripts, and anything else where you feature stories.

I’m going to be covering other aspects of issue framing for nonprofits and foundations in future posts.

CC photo credit: armadillo444


Nonprofits on YouTube: Start with Strategy




Lots of nonprofits are jumping on YouTube , but I’m worried that too few of their productions have strategic underpinnings. My advice is: get strategic, then get creative.

Individuals may be able to get away with uploading schlock on YouTube, but organizations can’t. You need to be as laser-like in crafting messages for your video as you are crafting messages for an annual report or a news release. Otherwise, you’ve wasted your budget on footage that does nothing to develop your viewer’s emotional engagement with your cause and support for your organization.

For nonprofits new to video production, I recommend working with a professional video producer at least for your first video. You can learn a lot from that experience—maybe enough to buy a videocam and do it yourself.

Before you ever hire that producer, know exactly what you want your video to achieve (e.g., conversation, donations, awareness, person-to-person dissemination, issue framing, concrete actions); who are its chief audiences; how will it be used; what are the 1-3 priority take-away messages; AND what’s your call to action. Once you’ve moved people, be sure to tell them what you want them to do.

With that information, you and the videographer can build an interesting story arc that not only entertains, but enlightens and persuades. The trick is to stick to your guns—even gorgeous footage and terrific quotes that aren’t on message should be cut. (Keep them for some other video you might make, or edit them into features for your website.) Remember, shorter is better. YouTube’s limit is 10 minutes. Here’s some basic technical information on making videos from YouTube.

Don’t forget your marketing plan. Uploading to YouTube is just a beginning. (Be sure to apply for a YouTube page through their Nonprofits Program portal–it gets you page branding tools not otherwise available, plus a video tutorial.) Think creatively about all the ways you can let key audiences know that your video is up there, and how you can encourage them to respond to it and share it. Try to enrich your YouTube page over time to keep people coming back. And, if you’re in Minnesota, don’t foget to post your video to MNStories, our own YouTube site.

Other general video production tips:

  • This is about storytelling and human relationships. Take a cue from novelists and start somewhere in the middle, not at the beginning. Very linear videos are great for training, but dull for storytelling.
  • Try to make this video about your cause, the NEED for your organization. Keep focus on your impact , not your activities.
  • Feature beneficiaries of your work, not only experts, peers, partners. Voices of those who need your services and are postively affected by what you do are your most powerful spokespersons.
  • When interviewing, ask the right questions of the right people. Make sure your videographer is a skilled interviewer working from a list of carefully considered interviewees. Draft questions for each interviewee so you can elicit answers that deliver the messages you want.
  • Use text to reinforce major points, but don’t overdo it. Use b-roll footage for emotional connection and impact. Keep people at the forefront, facilities are not that interesting.
  • Keep it real. You’re not striving for an Oscar, you’re striving to move the needle. Low-budget productions can be more authentic than glitzy productions…and authenticity is what people are hungry for.

Having said all that, here’s an example of a very innovative and authentic YouTube video about homelessness called “Mankind is No Island” by Jason van Genderen (obviously an individual not a nonprofit). No surprise it won an international short film award at last year’s Tropfest. The surprise is that it was made entirely with images taken by a guy on his cell phone. This not a model for what you should try right away, but an example of how creative you can get with only 3 minutes of this medium.

Other tips for nonprofit YouTubers?

CC photo credit: andreanilsson1976