The Line Between Impact and Cliché
How can NGOs refine their messaging?
We are six hours into a hot, bone-rattling drive from Monrovia to Wehplay, a village near Liberia’s border with the Ivory Coast, hoping that at least one of the cocoa farmers we are meeting can help us tell the story of why U.S. foreign assistance matters to countries like Liberia.
As the video crew bumps along in the truck behind us, we consider the challenges. What if none of the farmers turns out to be a compelling character? What if this U.S.-funded cocoa program isn’t doing well? How do we get our readers to care about what is happening here, a small country that’s trying to recover from decades of civil war? And how do we distill all of this into stories that will fuel our organization’s year-long advocacy campaign?
We also consider the opportunities. A good story about one of the farmers could humanize the issues in ways data never could. The sights and sounds of this farmer in his fields, eating dinner with his children, and interacting with his neighbors could help viewers see their lives in his and hopefully connect with him, motivating them to learn more, understand more—and take action.
Pushing more personal stories and fewer statistics is a strategy more and more nonprofits and NGOs are using to communicate their work. Stories about individuals can raise the visibility of their organizations’ efforts, inspire and prompt more interaction among members and readers, and increase their financial support—all vital in a tough economic and political climate.
“There’s the quote ‘One death is a tragedy; a million a statistic,’” said Brian Feagans, manager of communications at CARE. “I think that’s true. We can overwhelm people with statistics about global poverty. Telling one story cuts through all that and makes people care. It’s easier to block out a number rather than a person.”
Like CARE, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) looks for stories that help tell the bigger story of its work.
“We deal with issues of gender equality and social norm changes—it’s complex and sticky,” said ICRW senior writer and editor Gillian Gaynair. “The challenge is finding a way to talk about the research that will resonate with a wide audience. The best way to do that is to find someone who’s benefiting from it.”
The ONE Campaign also uses that storytelling model in its “Living Proof” project, started in 2009. As its website explains, the stories aim for the head and heart to show that progress is possible in developing countries. The site’s “Growing a Better Future” video highlights Maria Mchele, a Tanzanian farmer who learns better farming techniques to boost her family’s income.
“What we’ve seen with Living Proof is that when you tell the story of someone who has to walk miles to get water, it helps people make the connection,” said Meagan Bond, ONE’s U.S. marketing manager. “People tell us, ‘I get it now. It’s not just handing out money.’”
But the challenge for any storyteller in this field is to produce pieces general audiences can understand without relying on clichés or reducing a person’s life—and the story—to a formula. The problem happens when readers start seeing the same stories, with different names and faces.
“The cliché we talk about here is ‘Someone’s life was not going well, Catholic Relief Services came along and got them involved in a program, and now their life is better,’” said Jim Stipe, photo editor at the Baltimore-based organization. “While that actually is true, that’s a formula you could end up doing every time if you’re not careful.”
For Stipe and others, the solution involves reporting the setbacks and challenges: the family member who took the farmer’s money and caused an ugly rift; a women’s association that couldn’t repay its loan on time; a farming program that never got off the ground.
Feagans of CARE told the story of Goretti Nyabenda, a Burundian woman who joined a savings and loan association in her village. Nyabenda spoke openly to a writer about her husband’s physical and mental abuse; they had to resolve the imbalances in their relationship before she could move ahead. “Her honesty about that makes the story more powerful—and moves it beyond cliché,” he said.
Telling stories that aren’t wholly positive can be uncomfortable; it means organizations have to give up some control. But stories that give a more realistic portrayal of what is actually happening build credibility. Readers know you have seen and heard what is happening on the ground, asked questions and gotten feedback.
“I think there’s a perception among staff that we can only tell positive stories,” said Cassandra Nelson, director of multimedia projects at Mercy Corps. “But the people who give to our programs follow our work, and they follow the news. I think they appreciate the honesty, and that fosters more trust.”
Also, often the most appealing stories aren’t heavily branded, as in “our organization came in and made a huge change.” After the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) produced an interactive photo essay about the simple everyday tools its staff used to help in the recovery and rebuilding, things like rope and plastic containers and a megaphone. The story received a lot of positive feedback from teachers using it to help students understand the earthquake.
Doing more with less
Money is tight for most nonprofits, and the resources they can devote to storytelling varies. Many hire freelance journalists, while others rely on staff members to do double-duty: collect stories or take photographs while conducting research in the field. Some organizations put professional writers and multimedia journalists on staff. Most use combinations of the three ...