Fundraising: Story Telling

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By Muneezay Jaffery, Co-Founder of Development Three (D3)

First there was Greg Mortenson with Three Cups of Tea then there was Somaly Mam with The Lost Road of Innocence. Just two instances of individuals morphed into celebrity-humanitarians and then exposed as frauds. Both stories might not follow the same pattern, but the truth is, once such cases become public knowledge the level of trust people have in aidwork drops down a few notches. Perhaps even a few notches more than it already had.

I shared the recent Newsweek story with a couple of friends some of them work outside the aid industry and the development skeptic in them came out.  “These stories make the people doing good work, in essence bad!”  & “How do you know which organisation to support? How can we trust them?!”  Good questions!

So, how do you know? We have touched on this before, focusing on what one can do as a not for profit organisation- namely: acting transparently by disclosing accounts, making information publicly available and using social media to engage with potential donors.

One side of openness is accountability and the other is story telling. Be it to raise funds, support campaigns or producing marketing material. This is ultimately “the public face” of your NGO- i.e. your logo, the branding, the phrases used to describe your work. A fellow charity Operations Manager told me she sat in a charity marketing webinar and one piece of advice was

“Make sure the photographs you use have one person in the frame, particularly with beneficiaries, as this creates an instant connection and focus.”

Yes, photographs and images are a convenient and useful tool to tell stories but perhaps we need to look at the actual stories being told. Simon Marks, the journalist who broke the Somaly Mam story, states in a recent interview:

What I hope this <the Newsweek story> does do, is lend itself to having a more rigorous anti-sex trafficking movement, where there’s more transparency. And I suppose less of a desire to tell horrific horror stories, which are usually designed to fund raise and more of an educational discourse the matter, where we can really study as to why it happens and how it happens.

This takes the discussion a step further. First of all, it shouldn’t apply solely to the anti-sex trafficking movement. In fact, the need for a shift in the narrative being employed is applicable for the entire third sector. Organisations dealing with delicate and controversial subjects need to be more vigilant and meticulous about not misusing information. In fact, especially with regards to fundraising, horror stories feed our need for a shock-factor but they slip out of our conscious as quickly as they alert it. Resulting in interest that is usually not sustained long term.

How can NGOs strike the balance when getting the message across? That is, effectively showcasing progress and still being in a position to raise funds. WhyDev? recently posted a historical account of marketing in the aid industry and how it has changed over the years starting from the early 1900s. Although the overall change has been positive, albeit gimmicky at times, their article focuses on larger INGOs that are reaching to wider audiences. When we look at smaller NGOs, usually led by a “key figure”, such as Somaly Mam, the need for personal accounts and (horror) stories is imperative. It becomes powerful way to evoke emotions and generating trust, especially when the money is being used to fund work abroad.  Here are some general pointers on getting the story-telling right:

  • Pay attention to the use of pictures and content- It is better to showcase success than convey despair.
  • Compassion fatigue and donor boredom can be kept at bay by concise, timely updates that can also include a social return on investment section.
  • Stay away from the “victim” narrative- Work towards creating an empowering and opportunistic narrative.
  • Who else is telling your story? Which journalists or what newspapers are covering it? How is it being told.

Marketing and story-telling in NGOs is dependent on the nature of individual organisations and the work being done. If you are an NGO looking to update your marketing and communications strategy, you can contact us for a more in depth discussion.

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