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Isn’t it time for a new story? Innovative approaches to nonprofit storytelling

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A few weeks ago, I joined a small group of volunteers at the offices of Volunteer Toronto for an intensive three-day workshop. Participants — sent by the organizations with whom they volunteered — were taking part in a digital storytelling initiative with one goal in mind: to tell their story.

A community arts practice where people record a personal narrative to which they add photographs and music to create a two-to-five minute video, digital storytelling has been generating some buzz lately. With content generation a ubiquitous priority these days and with the competition for eyeballs higher than ever, it’s no surprise that organizations are looking for new and innovative ways to tell their stories, or, as in the case with Volunteer Toronto, those of their members.

As a testament to the growing need for forward-thinking storytelling tools and initiatives, a few weeks ago the US-based Center for Digital Storytelling launched their Canadian headquarters in Toronto. “Our mission is to help organizations and communities create story-based programs and share and tell their stories,” explains Rani Sanderson, program coordinator of StoryCentre Canada and the facilitator who ran the Volunteer Toronto workshops.

Getting past the numbers

She explains how so much of the information that organizations put out revolves around statistics, numbers and data. “While impressive, just looking at numbers doesn’t have a personal or emotional impact.” Sharing personal stories, on the other hand, allows people to connect on deeper levels. That engagement can mean a more effective communications strategy – whether with donors, media, members or the community.

“We’ve tried traditional profiles in the past and they didn’t work,” shares Volunteer Toronto’s marketing and communications manager Ainsley Kendrick. “People view content very differently now; we live in a world of lists and short bytes.” Wanting to recognize the individuals who give back in Toronto, the organization decided to pursue a living history of volunteerism as part of a three-year initiative of digital storytelling workshops.

Because Volunteer Toronto is an umbrella organization, telling its own story really came down to telling the stories of its members and the difference they’ve made in their communities, Kendrick explains. “We wanted to look at how volunteering has impacted people in their lives,” she says. “And through stories of individuals we’re able to do that. The ultimate goal is to inspire people to volunteer in whatever way they can.”

The stories vary, with the majority produced by volunteers of various organizations and some by recipients of volunteerism. Take the digital story of a young woman whose mentor taught her to ride a bike, battling in the process a physical disability and the belief she’d never succeed. “Oftentimes people don’t see they have the ability or skill to give back but it’s the everyday small things that matter,” she explains. “We wanted to show that.”

The recently completed Digital Storytelling project boasts over 100 stories which are now housed on a new Tumblr website, Volunteers of Toronto, that launched in May. The hope is that using a social media channel may be a more effective way of sharing stories. “Digital storytelling is a very different type of storytelling, it’s not clean, it’s not an ad-agency type of story, it’s raw, so it needs its own community space,” says Kendrick.

With 2000 visits to their new site since April, Kendrick’s optimistic about their new storytelling strategy, one that also involves a new photography initiative. Following the look of the popular Humans of New York project, the organization hired a professional photographer to take 100 photos of volunteers across Toronto to be posted on the same site, with their personal story attached. Followers are encouraged to submit their own photos too. The new site also links back to Volunteer Toronto’s website with a call-to-action message to inspire greater volunteerism.

The long-term impact is yet to be seen but Kendrick says the response so far has already been greater than when they’ve tried traditional means of storytelling. She adds that the stories have seen especially strong results on Facebook. “There’s been more engagement for these stories than any other type of posts,” she says. General feedback has been positive too.

Which doesn’t surprise Sanderson who cites two recent reports on the impact of digital storytelling – by the Rockefeller and Myer Foundations — both concluding that it’s a powerful tool to inspire action and change. She shares that, for some participants, these workshops are the first platforms they’ve ever been given to talk or voice their opinion. “I’ve had people tell me stories that they’ve never spoken aloud which I find such an honour,” she says.

“The product is amazing but it’s also the process that individuals go through that is so positive,” echoes Kendrick of a process she says enables reflection on experiences that brought them to where they are now.

A nuanced approach

For Vanessa Chase, a new approach to storytelling has been at the forefront of her business since its inception three years ago. She devoted her career up until then to fundraising, helping connect donors with philanthropic opportunities that inspire them. Though she loved her job, she found nonprofits weren’t effectively communicating their fundraising messages to their donors. “A lot of techniques weren’t inclusive and didn’t tell donors where their money was going, what’s happening with it,” she explains. “I figured there has to be a better way.”

While still employed at an organization, she started to develop more creative direct mail pieces with a particular focus on stories of people who benefited from its services. The response was great (one letter, for example, raised over $75,000). And Chase knew she was onto something. In early 2012 she decided to take what she learned and launch her own consultancy to help organizations raise more money through powerful communication pieces. “I wanted to better connect all donors to philanthropic opportunities and make them feel really good about what they’re doing,” she explains. “And I see stories as being the key vehicle to make that happen.”

Chances are good Cyndi Whitecotton would agree. A behavior researcher at a nonprofit radio network, she explains how she was intrigued by the impact of storytelling on relationship-building with donors. She reached out to Chase who recently helped them develop a training curriculum for storytelling that could be used to train staff on how to use the tool more effectively.

With that part of the project complete, Whitecotton is now focused on implementing it into organizational practice. Though it is still in production and the long-term impact has yet to be measured, she’s already singing the praises of the storytelling approach. “Vanessa took me back to the root of relationships,” says Whitecotton, of the train-the-trainer modules Chase created to help them understand their audience and design storytelling pieces that reach them. “With digital technology being what it is, we can’t step away from the focus on that relationship and how meaningful and impactful storytelling is,” she says. “We’re looking at what’s going to last and what really does create change.”

And what creates change for one may not create change for another, adds Chase, who emphasizes there’s no such thing as a “one-story-fits-all” proposition. Nonprofits are feeling increasingly pressured to be content producers, to be on every digital medium available. But they don’t have to be, Chase cautions. “I tell organizations, ‘you need to make communications decisions based on what’s right for you and your audience.’” So if your audience is not on Twitter, there’s no need to spend time there.

“Just focus on where you can get the most value,” says Chase, who adds she’s recently been focusing her attention on the nuances storytelling — things like narrative structure and language – and how that correlates with how much money organizations are able to raise.

None of these new storytelling strategies are easy, of course. One of the challenges that Chase hears about a lot is that fundraisers and communications professionals are seldom allowed on the frontlines, limiting their access to stories. “Internal and organizational silos prevent them from being able to find those stories.”

For Kendrick, increasing the number of people who view their content and having that translate into greater interest in volunteering are two related and ongoing obstacles she faces. But patience is key, she says, offering advice to others adopting new storytelling practices: “Try things out, know what your goal is and let it be,” she says, adding things are always changing but thanks to a number of new tools and people like Sanderson with impressive skills, there is a lot of opportunity to make an impact.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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Great piece about some fantastic initiatives.
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