Not-for-profit entities sometimes have the most difficult job while telling their stories. The need to balance the sad story and the happy ending without looking like the help mafia is sometimes challenging. Attending some launches of reports and meetings for donor requests, I find myself often cringing at the way the pitches and videos are packaged.
The stories are told at the extreme end of the emotional spectrum. They are either extremely happy and uplifting to excite audiences or extremely bleak and dark almost as if to scare the audiences into action. The best stories usually have a shade of light and dark in them. This is something not-for-profit organizations still struggle with today.
The most baffling thing about the way the communication agenda is set is that despite the shift from millennium development goals to sustainable development goals, many organizations are still selling themselves as if they are working towards the millennium – now long past, instead of working towards sustainability for the projects they are engaged in. Obviously, nobody wants to be associated with a boring story but the simplicity of telling a good story that audiences can engage with and buy into more often takes a back banner.
Stories are filled with buzz words like sustainability, community-focussed and livelihoods that are a bit ambiguous to people outside the development world. The imagery used is cliché pictures of children smiling and women in a baraza setting counting money followed by a photo of a healthy harvest or water canisters. All these initiatives are good no doubt, but NGOs are not telling the complexities of development and poverty. Instead these stories make the solutions look simplistic and easy, and sadly, they make you wonder what would happen to the whole community if the NGO pulled out of that place. You pity them because then the communities would return to ‘poverty’.
I believe the role of communication in development work is to help the voiceless have a voice and give communities a chance to portray themselves in a way that makes them feel and look comfortable enough to tell their own stories. Communication for development work should be centred on providing spaces and tools for people to connect and have a story long after the work is done. More so, nobody in the communities can tell their story better than themselves.
However, how many times have you heard a community member speak in these videos, or pitches to donors save for the snippets at the end where they are all saying thank you to the NGO for helping them, with big smiles, shiny faces, branded t-shirts and choreographed scenes holding placards that read, ‘because of you I am…, You have changed my life…? Usually, the video is a narrative with a voice over that explains in detail what the NGO has done in the community as opposed to having the members of the community say what the NGO has done for them.
I understand the challenges and possibly that the dream is a long way off given language barriers and cultural differences – to name a few hurdles, but the next question would be, why then do all the narratives sound the same while all these development agencies claim to have different agendas?
On paper, the agendas are different, but they communicate in the same way. They all ‘potray the poor’ in the same way but tend to think they do not and cannot communicate in the same way. Of course, the reason is to raise funds for the next project and the next child, the next family, the next community and so on but as a donor, sponsor or just a would be supporter I worry about the dignity of these communities.
The way the stories are packaged tend to leave the respect of the individuals and communities exposed to helplessness and weakness. The donors do not like to read stories without happy endings but every time I watch these videos or get to the end of a Facebook post, the story is watered down. The individual has disappeared somewhere between numbers, and the humanity is far removed from the narrative. What is left is the request on the table and a feeling of guilt read ‘support this cause, or have you supported this cause today’? Methodology on how to support varies – like the page, donate today, click on the link etc. By the end of it, the individuals’ lives are no longer real and raw. It is about meeting a target. I wonder, do likes on social media signify whether people care about a story or not, or does it have any relation as to whether the about the community members will get help or not? In most cases the answer is no.
The other side of the divide is telling stories that people care for. For example, stories of girls say who have been kidnapped would get a better response or click through rate, maybe likes on Facebook than boys in asylum. Does this mean people care more for girls than boys? Or is this a scenario that has been created by the pushing an agenda to create a perceived reality that causes us to think that some stories need our attention more than others?
In communication, you must tell a story that appeals to everyone otherwise they will not care for it. If your target audience does not care for your story, this in turn would translate to a reduction in funding, closed programs and ultimately this will affect millions of lives. The risk lies in the diluting of issues so much that they become throw away stories, devoid of meaning, relevance and impact. The organizations outside the development community understand little of the jargon and in fact always aim to cut through the clutter to see where the benefit is.
People also do not want to read complex stories that make them wonder or feel guilty to have taken a shower in the morning while somebody somewhere didn’t get even a drop of water in the past two days. Therefore, these stories need to be written in such a way that inspire people to want to be part of the cause without overselling the help mafia and warrior. The stories should highlight individuals and communities in a holistic way, that is educational and in a way that truly signifies the sustainable development agenda.
Communication through stories should promote a human connection, build relationships and help the audience understand another person’s life to the point that they almost experience the same emotion as that of the person in the story. This make a distant feature appear close and tangible to connect the two people without them ever even meeting. Good and effective stories inspire people to care about social causes through an emotional resonance.
A good story breaks down an abstract scenario into a simple one encouraging understanding. This is a basic marketing principle. Some of the best narratives are told in the simplest ways. Large multinational brands have mastered the art of ‘less is more’. Good marketers also embed their values into their stories to ensure they are aligned with the values of their target audiences to remove the complexity in narration. Also, there are no big brands that end their commercials by out rightly asking people to buy their products!
Online communication breaks barriers and allows marketers to have a two-way conversation with their audiences and bypass the middleman. Donor funded agencies can use this medium to educate, change misconceptions and get feedback or ideas on how to improve their impact. This also provides a medium to encourage participation and achieve social impact by positioning people to get involved in finding solutions and achieve meaningful goals, and rally people to take action.
Stories still remain the most effective way for the development world to communicate about their work and their successes. The most important thing would be to do so without overselling the reliance on fundraising to the point that it negatively impacts a potential donor. The marketing and social media efforts especially should provide a shift in the way the campaigns are delivered. They should instead sell the emotional appeal and answer the question, ‘what’s in it for me’ as a donor. Effective marketing and good communication in the field of development are inseparable. A lasting effect and good good story should be the real desired outcome.