It can be hard to find examples of storytelling excellence in the social sector. charity: water almost always gets mentioned for its consistent use of good visual design. World Wildlife Fund is known for the strength of its brand. WildAid is often called out for its innovative advertising campaigns. Perhaps once a year an Ice Bucket Challenge or Kony 2012 campaign will make it’s way into the national dialogue. But these success stories are all too rare.
Meanwhile, we see increased competition from socially minded startups, social enterprises, and B corporations; increased understanding of the importance of systems thinking; a focus on impact; and changing outlooks on overhead costs. These all make ambitious, results-driven philanthropy the new normal. Gone are the days when a compelling story that tugged at the heartstrings was enough. Good causes need great storytelling to thrive.
There are at least four possible reasons for the overall lack of great communications in the social sector. The good news is that avoiding or fixing these issues is relatively easy and can make a dramatic difference.
Abandoning “me too”
A big part of any message’s effectiveness is its ability to grab people’s attention. People don’t respond to “me too” campaigns that do what everyone else is doing. Originality is important. When infographics first came out, they were amazing attention-grabbers, but the sector became oversaturated with them—especially poorly designed ones—and people started to tune them out. Currently, short video clips with overlaid captions, shared on Facebook, are driving a lot of attention—but as more people copy this tactic, it will become less effective.
The social sector is particularly inclined to take a conservative attitude toward communications. Balancing a variety of interests and not wanting to upset anyone, nonprofits and foundations often wait until a proven leader tries and succeeds with an approach before they adopt it for themselves. But by then, the proliferation of that communication style usually undercuts its effectiveness. Abandoning “me too” thinking means being willing to try something before everyone else is doing it. It means weighing the risk of unproven but potentially powerful tactics against the opportunity cost of using safe and unoriginal communications.
A great example of a risky but effective message is Metro Trains’ 2012 “Dumb Ways to Die” video, which uses a playful and unique approach to call attention to train safety.
This project took a subject that is as serious as it gets, took a big risk by using humor to address it, and made a video that currently has more than 130 million views. Might the video have offended someone? Perhaps. But by reaching hundreds of millions of people with a message of awareness around trains, it may also may have saved lives.
Another great example is the work of photographer Benjamin Von Wong. His incredible, surrealist photography forces you to stop and consider what exactly you are looking at. His work on climate change turned him into a storm chaser; he photographed everyday activities such ironing in front of tornadoes to make a point about the often-ignored and impending dangers of climate change. His work has received major media attention, gone viral, and earned him a social media following greater than most major environmental organizations.
Pushing past “good enough”
It might upset some people to hear it, but generally speaking, marketing and communications standards are not as high in the social sector as they are in the private sector—and unfortunately, few challenge this mediocrity. Would charity: water get the overwhelming attention it does if it were a private company? It would still have great design, but would it stand out next to brands like Apple, Nike, or AirBnb?
WildAid, mentioned above, is a strong example of pushing past good enough. While many wildlife organizations tend to attach campaigns to photos of endangered species or threatened habitat, WildAid uses in-kind resources and celebrities to consistently produce high-quality videos at a reasonable cost. It has enlisted people like Sir Richard Branson and action hero Jackie Chan to make the case against wildlife trafficking.
Too often organizations commit significant resources to a single project and then don’t support it with additional efforts. I have worked on dozens of projects where tens of thousands of dollars went into creating something that was essentially abandoned after completion. After spending a large portion of a communications budget on a new website, for example, shouldn’t an organization put ongoing effort into sharing it with new audiences and improving its capabilities?
The public health NGO Population Services International, for example, created an impact calculator, which shows the tradeoffs of different public health interventions, as a simple internal measurement tool. But as its potential for workers in the field both inside and outside the organization became clear, PSI redesigned it, adding new features, and dramatically improving user experience and visual design. The tool is now simple and intuitive enough to be used by workers from a variety of organizations and can play an important role in weighing the potential benefits of these interventions.
Replacing market feedback
The private sector has built-in feedback loops. If you fail to inspire people to buy your products, you adjust and get better, or you disappear. Incentives in the social sector are different. Excellent development departments, for example, can mask bad communications by using relationships or grant-writing skills to successfully raise money from funders, despite poor communications or even poor program quality. Social sector goals are more nebulous than profitability, and measuring success without profitability can get confusing. But then again, that is one of the things that makes the social sector interesting. People can support the work of philanthropic organizations in so many ways—by advocating, partnering, donating, and volunteering. Organizations need a clear strategy for all communications, and since they lack market feedback loops, they need to define and pursue clear ways of measuring the communications success.
In the case of WildAid’s shark fin campaign, the organization must measure overall shark fin consumption and gain a reasonable understanding of how its communications tools are influencing consumption. A lobbying organization such as Taxpayers for Common Sense might measure how an infographic changes the vote of a single committee member. While this may seem like common sense, organizations often measure the success of communications by views or clicks, when those have little or no direct link to their larger strategic objectives.
By taking chances, having high standards, making long-term commitments to improvements, and defining and then measuring success, social sector organizations can create powerful communications and be in a better position to draw in supporters of all kinds, shape narratives, and solve important problems.
Creating great stories does require resources. However, many organizations that aren’t producing great messaging are already spending the amount it would require to do so—they just are not focusing their energy properly. Putting more resources into communications is smart, but it will only pay off if organizations strategically aim those resources at truly innovative, masterfully crafted campaigns that stand out.