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The Power of Stories


Last year, our GuideStar Exchange program began accepting videos as a way for you to better tell the story of your nonprofit’s work. Since then, hundreds of nonprofit organizations have begun posting videos on GuideStar. We hope eventually every nonprofit will include a video—or several—in its GuideStar Exchange report.

Some may have thought it odd for GuideStar—known for its hard facts and data—to be adding videos, but I believe videos are a powerful way to engage the public in what we do and help them to understand the meaning of our work. Plus we think that multiple data points are needed to evaluate a nonprofit organization effectively. We do not advocate judging a nonprofit solely on the basis of a video. Neither would we advocate judging a nonprofit solely on the basis of one IRS Form 990—or worse, an overhead ratio. We’ve added user reviews, too, not because we think they are the ultimate way to look at it a nonprofit, but because we think they are an important data point among many for gaining perspective on an organization’s work and impact.

Recently I read a piece by Nicholas Kristof that gave some helpful insights into what it takes to tell our stories successfully.

Kristof says, “I turned to the field of social psychology, trying to understand how I could craft my writing so that it would generate a response rather than a turned page. Over the past 20 years, there have been many studies that shed light on this question, and, increasingly, I’ve come to believe that those of us who care about human rights and global poverty can do a far better job in our messaging. Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company.”

Kristoff offers several lessons about how to engage stakeholders. First:

[People] intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation. For example, one experiment found that people are quite willing to pay for a water-treatment facility to save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp with 11,000 people in it, but they are much less willing to pay for the same facility to save 4,500 lives when the refugee camp is said to have 250,000 inhabitants. In effect, what matters is saving a high proportion of people, not just a large number of lives. … Unfortunately, the most cost-effective aid interventions tend to be the kind that are incremental and save only a small proportion of lives—and are thus least satisfying to the giver.

The second lesson:

Storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children. But it turned out that even providing background information on African hunger diminished empathy, so people were much less willing to help Rokia when she represented a broader problem. Donors didn’t want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one person—and to hell with the crisis.

Kristof concludes:

It’s clear that the philanthropic community hasn’t absorbed these lessons. When we want to get help, we make logical arguments about the scale of the suffering: Five million people have died in Congo! We make people feel guilty if they don’t help, rather than good if they do. In particular, humanitarians often make poor countries sound like unremittingly tragic hellholes full of starving children with flies in their eyes. That’s counterproductive: The challenge is to acknowledge both the desperate needs and also the very real progress in parts of Africa, the prospect of improvement in real people’s lives if the help goes forward.

Any consumer-products company rolling out a brand of toilet paper will agonize over marketing. The messaging will be carefully devised, tested with focus groups, revised based on polling, tested in a particular market, tweaked, and tested again. And that’s for a product whose launch makes no difference for humanity. In contrast, if an aid group is trying to raise support for a new program that could save many lives, it will often rely on a hodgepodge of guilt and statistics that limit its effectiveness. It has been said that “statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.” That’s precisely the problem—all the psychological research shows that we are moved not by statistics but by fresh, wet tears, with a bit of hope glistening below.

For a good example of what Kristof is suggesting, take a look a the book he and his wife recently released called Half the Sky. They wanted, Kristoff says:

to call attention to sex trafficking, acid attacks, maternal mortality, yet we knew a focus on such a litany of horrors would go unread. The solution we came up with was to find stories of women who had overcome adversity rather than succumbed to it. We looked for heroes, not victims. …

So far, this positive approach seems to have worked. Half the Sky became a New York Times bestseller and went through seven printings before it was three weeks old. Young people particularly seem to want to move from reading about problems to addressing them, so we started a Web site for them, We’re also developing an online video game and television documentary to bring new people to the cause.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Communications GuideStar Exchange Report