Published on September 11, 2013 by

Digital storytelling for charities – in the hands of beneficiaries

At last week’s F&P Forum, I heard two case studies from self-proclaimed professional troublemaker AJ Leon about digital storytelling.

One featured a tiny, tiny non-profit called Global Hope Network International. Using digital storytelling, a mobile phone and a $250 budget, they managed to raise $72,000 in three hours to fund community development work in the village of Ola Nagale in Kenya.

The other campaign was The Big Dig for WaterAid in the UK. It saw £2.2 million pouring in for water projects in Malawi.

I don’t want to describe the projects in great detail here. Suffice to say the successful storytelling in these cases incorporated:

  • stories directly from the field uploaded to a free blog platform – Tumblr for GHNI and WordPress for WaterAid
  • training “village journalists” – local people who could be relied upon to produce ongoing content using just a mobile phone.

What I wanted to talk about was how AJ Leon twists around the traditional model of charity storytelling.

In the past, a charity would tell the story of the beneficiary through the eyes of the CEO or a field worker complete with glossy photos taken by a professional photographer (or not).

Here, the beneficiaries tell their own stories through their own eyes – and the lens of a mobile phone.

Allowing beneficiaries to tell their own stories

This is how charities have told their stories in the past:

Charity tells the organisation’s story. This involves telling donors how long your charity has been around, the type of work you do, how many programs you run. This is generally very internally focused and fails to cater for the needs of your donors.

Charity tells the project stories. You tell donors about specific projects and outcomes. This may or may not have stories of individual beneficiaries.

Charity tells the beneficiaries’ stories. This is where donors get more interested since people give to people not organisations or projects. You tell donors the stories of individuals whose lives changed through your work. If you’re really good at this, you manage to strike an emotional chord and give lots of credit to the donor for your outcomes.

Donor consumes the charity’s storytelling. If all has gone well, the donor reads an appeal, gives a gift and then gets a report back in a newsletter six months later.

You’ll notice in these cases that the charity is the middleman between the donor and beneficiary. The charity gets someone to take the photos, gather the stories and write them up in a way that’s hopefully compelling enough to prompt a gift from a donor.

But AJ Leon turns this model on its head. He doesn’t completely cut out the middleman but he certainly does his best to get the charity out of the way. Instead, this is how stories got told in the GHNI and WaterAid initiatives:

Beneficiaries, not the charity, tell their own stories. AJ Leon looked for local people on the ground with decent English, some knowledge of the web, and who cared about the future of their villages. He taught them how to record images and short videos on a mobile phone and upload them to the web.

It’s unpolished. It’s raw. The text has dodgy spelling and grammar. It uses Instagram and mobile phone pictures. But it’s undoubtedly real content that comes directly from the people who will benefit from the charities’ projects.

Donors live the story in almost real time. Instead of seeing the results in a newsletter months after the fact, donors can actually see the project’s progress as it happened. In WaterAid’s Big Dig blog, they followed the village planning its wells, digging its latrines, dealing with development issues.

They could see how Mary had to rush off to hospital because her baby girl was sick with malaria. They could follow the lives of individual villagers and get to know them.

And it was almost in real time. Although the village itself didn’t have Internet access, Instagram allows users to queue content. So when the villagers could get their phones to an area with Internet access, all the content went straight to the server.

Instead of the charity telling the stories, the non-profit creates a platform so the beneficiaries can speak for themselves. Unedited. Non-PC. Sharing their lives with donors on the other side of the world.

Real time and raw – this is powerful storytelling.

Risky? Yes. But compelling, engaging, connecting the donor almost directly to the beneficiary. AJ Leon calls it experiential philanthropy.

At a time when donor retention is a big issue for many charities, let me pose this question. Just how many of these donors do you think will give again because of their experience with Ola Nagele and Malawi?

Needless to say, your charity may have many objections to this kind of storytelling. The lack of control. The fear of looking unprofessional. The possibility of exploiting beneficiaries – a kind of charitable voyeurism. Not adhering to your style guide. Or worse, the charity’s brand isn’t shown.

Pffft. As AJ Leon says, “You can’t let your organisation or logo get in the way of a good story.”

Before you say it can’t be done in your organisation, mull it over a bit first. I agree this may not be for every charity. But you may be able to use some of the principles involved to make your storytelling more vivid and engaging for donors.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about how you may be able to adapt the ideas from these case studies for your own non-profit.

1 Comment

  1. […] is something to be said for a message that comes from the heart. These messages, in the form of testimonials, are just what you get with charitable organizations – those that are telling their stories are […]

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