We are storytellers. As non-profit marketing and communications professionals, we tell stories that matter and strive to create positive change. We also know that high-impact stories carry much more weight when they are told from the perspective of clients or beneficiaries.
Telling empowering stories helps build strong emotional appeals and can result in increased giving, especially for millennial donors who want to feel like they’re BFFL with the people they’re helping. For many of us, having beneficiaries tell their own stories is also a core principle in our personal and organizational values. But as you know, this is no small task.
Language barriers, geographic distance, permission and confidentiality requirements, and limited resources at the organizational level all make it that much more difficult to raise up the voices of the people your donors want to hear from most.
Here are the top challenges organizations face in collecting beneficiaries’ experiences from a recent survey conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy:
The good news is that you don’t need to give up and swear off writing forever because I’ve made a list of 7 ways to tell empowering stories to help overcome some of these challenges:
1. Just ask them to tell their own
What a letdown, eh? Before you judge me for this obvious suggestion, ask yourself this: when is the last time you just asked a client or beneficiary to tell their own story?
It is an obvious tactic, but many organizations rarely put it into practice. Sometimes the only thing stopping a beneficiary from telling an incredible story of impact for your organization is you not asking them to. Your beneficiaries are creative human beings so make sure you’ve given them the opportunity to provide you with raw, honest content before nose-diving into writing it for them.
How many slam poets, writers, oral storytellers, musicians or visual artists – who may also require the help your organization provides, have you passed over in your hunt for a good story? I once read a feature from an organization who learned that a subsistence farmer from east Africa also happened to write really good poetry about his life and the impact of their programming. It’s important to remember people are multi-dimensional and exist in a multitude of capacities outside of what you see.
Sometimes barriers prevent this sort of organic collection from happening – and if that’s the case you may now proceed to the following suggestions.
2. Use interview guides (effectively)
Interview guides are a critical tool when writing empowering stories. A finely tuned interview guide can help massage conversations to hit on the themes you may need – while still allowing the interviewee to express genuine reflections.
Using interview guides means you don’t have to use resources to be “in the field” to obtain high impact stories – and in some cases, it may be best that you aren’t. Community members or field staff who already have trusting relationships with your beneficiaries may be in a better position to conduct interviews, particularly if you are touching on topics that may be sensitive.
Make sure interview guide questions are impact-focused and respect your beneficiaries’ right to live a life free of expressing eternal gratitude. Impact-focused interviews will tell a powerful story of overcoming adversity focusing on two key ingredients:
- The agency of the beneficiary
- Their empowerment because of your donors.
You know you have used an effective interview guide when you are able to remove your chronological questions from the interview transcription and a complete story has been told.
3. Invest in translation
Nuance, voice, and fine detail – the real heavyweights in storytelling, are the first to be lost in second or third languages. If someone can speak English, but they’re much more comfortable in Farsi, you will undoubtedly have richer content if they speak Farsi and you invest in translation instead.
“Mais, où allons-nous pour obtenir le budget pour les traductions?” you asked, possibly in English. If your organization is unable to invest financially in translation services, an alternative option is to build a strong committed team of volunteers with different language competencies. I have seen this done very well in small grassroots organizations. Match this with a good interview guide and you’ve got yourself rolling already.
4. Go beyond paper
While the written word is the favoured vehicle for nonprofit marketing and communications materials, expanding your mediums can help provide alternative platforms for your beneficiaries or clients to tell their own stories.
One such platform is digital storytelling – and in my quest to find a solid example of this done right, I came across a video made by a certain Tyson Sanford-Griffin of Baltimore who is as good at parkour and freerunning as he is at film:
Phew, powerful. Tyson made the video with support from Wide Angle Media, a nonprofit that provides Baltimore youth with opportunities to tell their own stories using video, technology, public speaking and critical thinking skills.
Another good example of going beyond paper comes right out of Canadian Feed The Children – my lovely workplace. They have recently introduced using audio recorders in some of their interviews with beneficiaries from First Nations communities, embracing the strong oral tradition of their partners. Using audio recorders has helped provide an alternative and culturally meaningful pathway for beneficiaries to share their stories with donors. It is a method the organization is looking at utilizing in other countries of operation going forward.
Using audio recorders also helps maintain the voice of interviewees via transcription in a way that traditional pen-in-hand interviews often don’t. You can see how the audio transcriptions helped maintain the integrity of the natural placement of words and personal voice in the direct quotes used in this story.
5. Focus on people, not you
Donors don’t care about you. In high impact stories, your job is to make yourself the least visible as possible. The closer the connection between your donor and your beneficiaries or clients in your stories, the stronger the emotional appeal. Here are a few quick tricks:
- Name your beneficiary (even if it’s an alias)
- Use a lot of real photographs, with permission
- Focus on powerful direct quotes
- Tell the story with as little active narration on your part as you can get away with
UNICEF are absolute pros at this.
6. Use community animators & build capacity
“What is a community animator?” I once asked Google, before interviewing for a position as one. It’s a bit of a hot term these days, but in short, community animators help communities become empowered by finding a higher degree of self-expression and influence. This is key, especially if you are working in communities or with people who have not traditionally had access for space to self-advocate.
Building capacity through community animation could take many forms depending on the communities you work in – and it really should be an integrated piece of your programming. Here’s a Handbook for Community Animators from Carnegie UK Trust.
7. Ask for feedback before, during and after. And then follow up.
I’ve focused a lot on collecting feedback on the impact of your work, but it’s also important to remember to engage beneficiaries before, during and after your project. This not only empowers the beneficiary to be authentically apart of their own story, but it also provides you with extra touch-point opportunities as high-interest stories progress.
When you have used a beneficiary’s story in a communications material – do your best to follow up if it’s possible. Send a copy of the publication they are featured in, or send a handwritten thank you card for their contribution to your organization’s work. By sharing their story – an often brave thing to do, they are raising donor dollars to help future beneficiaries. That’s pretty cool, so celebrate it with them!