Digital Storytelling for Social Impact
Use the power of narrative and networks to enhance your reach, resources and impact.
Successful leaders in business, nonprofits and philanthropy understand the power of storytelling to educate and inspire people. And with digital cameras, social networks, and other technology making it easier for anyone to surface and share stories, digital storytelling is a potentially powerful tool for social impact.
But with all the new tools comes a lot of noise. The ubiquity of digital technology and the explosion of content on the Internet have made it increasingly difficult to break through, capture people’s attention, and engage them in meaningful ways. Organizations of all kinds must learn how best to harness the power of narrative and networks to create social impact.
To explore the challenges and opportunities in this intersection of story and technology, the Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with Hattaway Communications to consider how digital technology can elevate the practice of storytelling to improve the well-being of the poor and vulnerable around the world.
Our initial report, “Digital Storytelling for Social Impact,” shares insights and ideas from storytellers and thought leaders in entertainment, news media, brand strategy, technology, philanthropy, government, nonprofits, and business. The report highlights critical issues for leaders to consider in five important areas:
Strategy: Storytelling must be strategic. Social impact organizations often dive into storytelling without articulating clear goals, understanding the interests and motivations of target audiences, or setting measurable objectives. These strategic guidelines are necessary to craft effective content and design an engagement plan using appropriate platforms to reach the right people and mobilize them for the cause.
Capacity: Effective storytelling takes skill. The most meaningful stories often come from people with authentic and insightful experiences to share, even though they may not be skilled storytellers. Storytelling professionals with specialized creative and technical skills know how to turn compelling stories into high-quality content, but few organizations have skilled storytellers on staff or the resources to hire consultants to create content from storytelling. While plenty of tools exist, people don’t know how to use and apply them.
Content: Stories must be meaningful. In today’s hypercompetitive media environment, people notice and share only the most compelling content. Engaging stories create emotional resonance and human connection while serving a strategic purpose, such as driving people to take meaningful actions. Stories for social impact must show people as active agents of change, who play a central role in creating solutions to the problems they face. This preserves their dignity, encourages empathy, and inspires support from others.
Technology: There’s no one-size-fits-all tool for storytelling. With the sheer number of tools and platforms in existence, social impact organizations struggle to understand which to use to most effectively engage the right audiences. Most organizations need guidance on best practices for utilizing common platforms; they also need access to data that can help them target the right audiences.
Evaluation: We can measure the impact of storytelling, but we often don’t. Organizations that evaluate the impact of their storytelling accurately can learn what’s working and enhance their success. People charged with evaluating the impact of strategic storytelling within an organization often need guidance on how to set metrics for digital storytelling, as well as training to use readily available evaluation tools.
If you feel that your organization falls short in some of these areas, you’re not alone. The research identified an overwhelming need for thought leadership, capacity building and resources to strengthen storytelling in the field. Getting it right can help your organization leverage the power of narrative and the reach of networks to extend your reach and enhance your impact.
Help is on the way. The ideas in this report have inspired a vision for a new storytelling marketplace to elevate the practice of digital storytelling for social impact. We envision an interactive platform where social impact organizations can get strategic guidance, create compelling content, learn from case studies and link to capacity-building tools.
This post first appeared as an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Doug Hattaway and Jay Geneske, director of digital communications at the Rockefeller Foundation.