CHARITIES: THE BUSINESS OF SELLING STORIES
If you are a charity or social cause, the product you package up and sell to people is STORY.
To keep things simple, we’ll think of charities at the moment. Social enterprises also sell story as a key feature of their commercial offerings, but they add value through service or product as well. The story is their USP in a competitive market.
So, think of a charity as if it were a business. What is the business transaction taking place? The purchaser will exchange cash in return for … well, not the actual service. Beneficiaries somewhere else get those. They are purchasing the story of the impact that cash will have upon those beneficiaries.
This could either be a personally motivated B2C equivalent dynamic e.g. sponsoring a guide dog, or a more systematic B2B equivalent e.g. The Big Lottery Fund approving a grant application for a local charity to provide support services to 2000 people across ten counties.
In both cases, they will receive a packaged story in return. The guide dog sponsor will receive postcards, updates, photographs, etc of “their dog” to show the great impact their donation has made possible. Assuming they are actually connected to a specific dog in the database, they will be one of thousands that sponsor that single dog. But the personalised update pack makes the donation and its impact personal (and encourage customer loyalty/regular giving).
For the Lottery funded project, the grant administrators will receive a formal report at the end of the grant cycle detailing statistical evidence of the number of beneficiaries and the progress against target outcomes stated in the original application. They will also likely be asked to include personal testimonials from people who benefitted from the funded services.
Simply put, charities need to invest time and funds, in packaging up and delivering the best stories possible to their donors. Of course, I’d argue that the best bang for their buck in terms of returns delivered through engagement is video.
THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY: The responsibility to narrative.
Where the desire to tell stories arises, so too does the responsibility to tell them with care. Many of us are familiar with the term “poverty porn” which denotes a cliched form of emotionally manipulative storytelling. Depending on the era you are born to, the soundtrack playing in your head will either be REM’s Everybody Hurts, or maybe Coldplay, Keane or Adele? Or even, bless him, Ed Sheeran.
The genesis of this format of extremely lucrative marketing developed at the behest of David Bowie, during preparations for Live Aid, as Harvey Goldsmith explains in The Guardian;
One afternoon before the concert, Bowie was up in the office and we started looking through some videos of news footage, and we watched the CBC piece. Everyone just stopped. Bowie said, ‘You’ve got to put that in the show, it’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll give up one of my numbers.’ That was probably one of the most evocative things in the whole show and really got the money rolling in.
Good story relies on truth, and Michael Buerk’s news coverage of the famine in Ethiopia was hard hitting factual coverage. The decision to lay Drive by The Cars over the top of it was an inspired choice and it hit millions of people like a poleaxe to the sternum. They emotional power of that moment drove donations into overdrive.
It also had every charity in the land busily planning their own films of stark imagery cut to emotive music. I can, off the top of my head, remember films about water poverty, enslaved donkeys, maltreated dogs and many more. Just £2 a month, the price of a coffee, would change their lives forever.
This form of narrative, along with the unthinking hero imagery of the white donor surrounded by a phalanx of African kids, serves to set the beneficiaries as somehow lesser. On both counts, regardless of motive, it acts as a condescension. We pity them and then we extend the benevolent hand to help them up, expecting gratitude to be written across their faces.
This is no forum for me to deconstruct the misguided marketing of third sector organisations, mainly because the folks at RADI-AID with their Radiator awards, do a sterling job at calling our poor practice and recognising best practice. They also produce handy guides, such as this one about using images of people and this excellent guide for social media use.
INSTIL A SENSE OF EMPATHY, NOT PITY
So, much like food producers have a responsibility to ensure that the produce they sell is free from harmful agents, so too must storytellers ensure that there is no detrimental effect to the content we create. It needs to be healthy and balanced, to strong a metaphor out even further.
I would recommend watching Brene Brown’s RSA animated lecture on empathy, to discern the difference between it and sympathy or pity. But the point to me is that pity is a position where we stand aloof and say; I feel really sorry for that person, they are in a terrible situation. Whereas empathy is a position whereby we are mentally in the person’s shoes. They could be us, were it not for good fortune and circumstance.
A great example of content which inspires empathy is the following from the Robin Hood Foundation
Our approach at Simmerdim, with any client, is to work hard to understand 1.) the purpose of any content; and 2.) the truth behind it.
We did this with a commercial client recently who supplies mobility aids by editing the script to put their main mission first; the belief that everyone should have the independence to live their lives as they choose.
We believe that there are several principles which content for third sector organisations should be built around;
- Let people tell their stories.
Don’t assume you know what the narrative will be. Even if the content is to be scripted drama, spend the time in development working with people who have lived that situation to be able to do them justice and to connect viewers. One of my favourite pieces of work I’ve produced (with the cinematography and editing by John Duncan) is about slum sanitation microfinance projects in Bugembe, Uganda. I asked questions to prompt the story elements (beginning/middle/end – problem/solution) but all of the content was driven by the team running the project.
- Emotional triggers drive content sharing, but sadness is not the only emotion.
Humour is also a great emotional trigger. So is familiarity and positivity. When I worked for a UK charity which served people with auto-immune diseases, the highest levels of engagement and shares specifically we got were on stories which allowed other people with the condition to share them and say to their friends and family; “THIS! This is my experience”.
- Lose the ego: be a failure not a hero
If you see a large NGO telling you about the impact they’ve had and the lives they’ve changed in various communities, know that they actually may have a chain of local partners doing the work on the ground and barely covering their costs doing so. The Busoga Trust has spent the past 35 years doing this sort of work. So examine your motive for sharing a story? Is it for the glory, the warm fuzzy glow of a good deed done, manifested in praise from donors and the public? Let me tell you this, your local partners and staff on the ground will call bullshit on that very quickly. Instead, take pride in your integrity, be like Engineers Without Borders Canada and produce a failure report. They publicly own the occasions where they could have done better. They learn from them and share the lessons to help others learn too. This has been a PR coup for them
- Know why you are making the content
You’d be surprised how often people have decided that they need compelling content but haven’t thought why. I always get people to fill in the blanks on the following;
The purpose of this film is to _______ in order to _______
Get people to donate in order to fund a project? Well that defines the decision making for the film. And the indicators for measuring it’s success or need to change approach once launched.
IT’S NEVER BEEN EASIER TO TELL YOUR STORY: & film is the best way to do that.
If you think back to the 80s, it took the combined power of the BBC,Channel 4, Geldof, Ure and every major music star of the time to propel an issue into the consciousness of the mainstream populace.
Almost 40 years later, a young schoolgirl can have a seat outside the Norwegian Parliament on a Friday and within a very short period of time, tens of millions of people worldwide have joined her. Social content has opened the door for powerful narratives to take flight.
Yet this brings with it a huge volume of content competing for an audience’s attention. Which is why high quality film content is a wise choice. Video is already becoming the dominant form of marketing and little surprise at that, given the number of platforms which thrive on it; Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and, with huge potential going forward as a private, social network, WhatsApp, it seems odd not to fully engage with that market.
This is not to say that video has to be large budget, professional productions. In many forms of social video, Instagram stories being a prime example, rough and ready user led content is not only cheap and quick to generate, but has an immediacy and authenticity which give real authority and drive engagement. It is all about providing that story to donors, both to show accountability and to encourage ongoing support.
Yet, having said this, while that reactive content is a rich vein of conversational engagement with supporters, to really connect them fully to the exact story you want to tell, the best thing to do is to work with a professional filmmaker to bring together multiple elements; cinematography, soundscape, editing, direction and create powerful pieces of action driving media. Which is where we come in.
WHY ARE WE THE PEOPLE TO TELL YOUR STORY?
Because we are you. I worked for twelve years in the charitable sector, both in international development overseas and in patient support bodies in the UK. I was a project manager, delivering work-plans on time and budget in remote areas or rural Uganda with skeleton staff and basic resources. I was a fundraising manager, bringing in hundreds of thousands in grants for a small charity to deliver resources across the UK and beyond. I was many other things simultaneously, as people working in tiny, low budget charities usually are. In every case, I have leveraged the power of story to achieve our aims. Back in 2005, with a cheap camcorder and no knowledge, I cut my first film in Uganda. It was cliched, it was amateur, but it was OK. It secured hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding.
Working with us, you’ll know that; the people you trust to tell your story are well versed in operating in any environment at a high level; that we know how to speak to donors at every level, both Trust and individual fundraiser; that we are tuned to the sensitivities of telling a story alongside the protagonists, not putting them in a petri-dish of condescension. In short, we are the perfect people to create film content for charities.
Another, probably better written article on how charities can avoid falling into the poverty porn trap is this one, published in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2018/jan/12/charities-stop-poverty-porn-fundraising-ed-sheeran-comic-relief