How to write Social Impact Stories People can’t Resist

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The most popular tags on Medium are #tech, #life-lessons, #travel, #design, and #startup. I write about homeless people, for Stories Behind The Fog. Has it been easy to make people read -and care about- our subject? No. Are we making progress? Absolutely. One of my latest stories even made it into Top 20 most recommended stories on Medium, right before the elections.

In this blog, I’ll share some insights and struggles from our five month Medium journey.

Before we dive in… a little bit about us

The impetus for Stories Behind The Fog (SBTF) is to challenge a single-minded view of homelessness in the Bay Area. We do that by rendering its entire spectrum, one story at a time, inspired by our experiences with an incredible man named Moses. We are working on a book with 100 stories that will be out in late 2017, and is a means to generate funding for the nonprofits we work with. We share stories from the perspective of the people we interview, in their own words, as a counterbalance to the often detached way homelessness is described in mainstream media.

1. How to get people to read about inconvenient truths

We personally can’t get enough of the beautiful, painful and sometimes mind-blowing stories that (formerly) homeless people share with us. But truth be told, even our closest friends sometimes get tired of hearing about the homelessness situation in our beloved city. It’s considered an inconvenient truth, just like climate change, gender equality and global conflicts. We know something needs to happen, but we’d rather watch funny cat memes.

So how to compete with funny listacles, how-to’s and food blogs? This is what has worked for us.

Image by J.P. Dobrin for “Mom, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think I’m a girl.” Isabella

A. Headlines matter. See for yourself.

Try it. Scroll through the Top Stories on Medium, and see what your brain does. If your brain is like mine, it finds it very hard to resist headlines like 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8AM. I experience instant FOMO when I try to ignore it.

Unfortunately, the stories I am writing are not about simple life hacks. Yet it does pay off to think about how to evoke curiosity. When SBTF project lead Diya Guha and I brainstorm about headlines, we roughly have three approaches to finding the perfect headline:

Think this doesn’t work for you, because you are publishing a report on Medium, or a complicated scientific argument? Think again. Human connection is a powerful thing.

B. Working with Medium’s themes and current affairs

Medium (thankfully) has a slower pace than many other platforms, but current affairs are still a thing. Although we’re often so excited about our latest story that we want to publish it right away. We did notice that it pays off to think about timing. Our story about Bonnie, who used to volunteer for the Clintons and is now homeless, did very well when we posted it right before the elections. Posting it now might have stirred a lot less conversation. However, our story about Nenad, who is considering to move back to Serbia, is a very good after election story, as moving to another country is the talk of the town now (sorry Canadian Immigration Service…).

Image by by Jonath Mathew for “I gave back my U.S. citizenship. I’m going back to Serbia.” Nenad

For us, it’s vital to share our story with people that would normally not read about homelessness. That’s why we are trying to tie into Medium’s themes more and more. Even though it might not attract tons of readers, we love it when people that are less homelessness-obsessed than us become followers.

And… don’t be shy about letting Medium editors know when you think you wrote a story that they might like. They might give you a little help promoting the story. The first story that got a recommendation from the Medium staff got almost 300 recommendations, compared to the 5–25 recommendations we were used to.

Nenad’s story was a perfect fit for the ‘Naturalized’ tab

So start thinking about how your stories tie into Thanksgiving, Christmas or Trump’s first day in the Office, and work with Medium’s super helpful staff to find the perfect publication date. Ariel Azoff is incredibly dedicated to making nonprofits succeed on Medium, so if you think she likes your mission, don’t be shy and leave her a note.

C. A shiny gift wrap

It’s very easy to make beautiful blog posts on Medium. So don’t be shy, beautify. We all wish it’s all about your message, but sometimes it’s easier to deliver it in a shiny gift wrap.

Portraits of our interviewees, by Jonath Mathew and Juli Lopez.

We always work with professional photographers, that make beautiful portraits of our interviewees. We play and tweak with the layout of our publication. And we think about the layout of our stories a lot.

Simply adding quotes to break up paragraph gives your readers space to breath, for example.

And there is much more you can do with the layout of your publication and your stories. But we’ll let the Medium editors explain that to you.

D. From reading to talking… and more

Woohoo, you got people to read about your inconvenient truth(s), and your stats tell you they made it all the way till the end of your story!

Now you can start thinking about the next stage: action! Maybe you want people to comment, share, or recommend your story. And the easiest way to do that… is by simply telling them:

Another thing to remember is that Medium, although it’s pretty awesome, is not the only medium on the planet. Of course Medium conveniently provides Facebook and Twitter integration, and it pays off to share your stories there. But three of our way-hipper-than-me contributors also introduced me to Reddit, a slightly intimidating platform that has readers with a similar attention span to those on Medium, that are always in for a good discussion.

Reddit. Yes, it’s less pretty than Medium.

And what about good old fashioned IRL? Talking about our mission on for example CBS and Ignite (starts at 40:10) helped us attract a wider audience to our stories on Medium.

My Ignite Talk (starts at 40:10).

Feeling shy about reaching out? Don’t! You have an important mission, so don’t be afraid to pitch your story everywhere (and be rejected a lot). It’s all about radical collaboration:

2. Radical collaboration

This has been a big one for us. SBTF is a wonderful, tail wagging, loyal, but also demanding pet project — a bit like having a great dane. The project is volunteer and passion driven. We depend on collaboration as a driving force, and I’ll explain here how we do that successfully.

Image by Rytis Mikelskas

A. Don’t be shy

Our project lead Diya is fearless in reaching out to people that are aligned with our mission. And so it happens that Pulitzer nominees take some of our pictures. Or that Arianna Huffington invited us to share our stories in The Huffington Post.

Image by Pullitzer nominee Andrew Burton for “I used to volunteer for the Clintons. Now I go from shelter to shelter.” Bonnie

Diya and I didn’t know each other 6 months ago. But she found my first story on Medium and commented on it, pointing out how our missions align. That sparked a conversation that lead to a wonderful collaboration, that made the sometimes lonely writing process so much more fun for me, and gave Diya and her team the spirit of community support.

If you know someone could contribute to your mission, but you’re afraid to ask them, because you can’t pay them, think again. You might have something to offer to them that money can’t buy.

B. Collaborate with individual contributors

We can’t reward people with big pay checks. But what we can do is think about how to make them shine. For me, that means that Diya helps me establish myself as a writer here, as I moved to San Francisco from Amsterdam about a year ago.

It also means simply expressing gratitude to your collaborators. As simple as it sounds, for me it means the world to receive a genuine thank you from the SBTF team when we’ve published yet another beautiful story.

Image by Ben_Kerckx

C. Collaborate with Publications

There are many beautiful Publications on Medium, all hungry for good content. Some only accept new content, some are happy to share existing stories with their readers. Maybe Joel Mwakasege from Be Yourself loves your work. Or the storytellers of Human Parts. Or maybe it’s The Mission worthy. It doesn’t hurt to try!

Overview of Medium publications on

When writing a new story, think about whether you could write it in a way that makes it irresistible for a publication. For example, I recently wrote a story about an incredible young man that was able to get rid of the ‘youth at risk’ label through what he learned at the Life Learning Academy. Sounds like a perfect story for Bright, right?

That’s what they thought too, so Bright editor Andrea Gurwitt collaborated with me on making the story Bright-worthy. Which is yet another example of the power of collaboration: extra editing power from the publication to make your stories more appealing and easy to read.

3. Crowdfunding on Medium (work in progress)

There are many great articles about crowdfunding. But there are not too many people that are using Medium to find funders yet. However, because we do need funding to publish our book so it can become a funding vehicle for our project partners, we recently decided to give it a try.

A. On the technical side

Medium makes it really easy for you to add a call to action to your stories. You can simply add an image of a button with ‘Donate Now” and add a hyperlink to it with command + K.

Or you can make it look a little more fancy, like we did, by embedding an iframe from the Heartstrings Project, that we are using since June 2016.

The only unfortunate thing is that I can’t see the widget myself because of my geeky ‘do not track’ browser settings. Which means that our beautiful widget…:

… looks like this for me:

So far this seems to be an isolated issue that doesn’t happen to many people, but it’s good to be aware of.

We will do some more A/B testing to find out what is the most effective way to reach potential crowdfunders, and update this article with our latest insights.

B. On the people side

A big thank you to the people that donate to our project! With your help we can support the incredible humans who live on the streets of our city.

Image by Jonath Mathew for “San Francisco needs to wake up and help the kids that people don’t even know exist.” Teri

However, we’ve learned that we have to be really careful with our crowdfunding message. We’ve had some sleepless nights after receiving angry responses from people who accused us of making lots of money for ourselves with the stories of vulnerable people. Advice on how to explain what we do with the money we receive in a sweet and simple way is more than welcome…

And even if people want to donate, they do not always like that they can only donate to us as an organization, rather than to the individual they are reading about. For now, we’ve decided to stick with the organization approach to avoid overly complicating the logistics, but if you are working with individuals, it is worth considering a Hand Up Campaign.

Publications are another aspect to consider on the people’s side. We love sharing our stories in other Medium publications. And although many of them love our stories, they do not always love embedding our crowdfunding widget. Some simply remove it when editing the story, some ask us why we need it. Again, transparency about your mission seems to be key here.

Want to learn more? Check out these insightful articles:

Medium for Nonprofits by Ariel Azoff

Medium for Social Impact Orgs by Gabe Kleinman

How to Get Read on Medium by Medium Staff

How to Start Your Own Publication by Medium Staff

Rockefeller’s Hatch for Good guide to Medium

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Thanks to stories behind the fog

Arjanna van der Plas

Written by

On a mission to discover San Francisco —the whole beast.

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A space for writers to share ideas and techniques about the craft of writing. Want to contribute? Send us a request at

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