Doing Digital Storytelling Right: An Interview With the Rockefeller Foundation
As I wrote two weeks ago, the Rockefeller Foundation recently released a summary report of a study it compiled of digital storytelling methods for advocacy groups. The project invited nearly 50 people from a variety of industries and sectors to participate in roundtable discussions, interviews and workshops about how philanthropic organizations and advocacy groups were using the skills of storytelling to draw in supporters.
Participants found much room for improvement both in an organization’s capacity to craft compelling stories and to measure those efforts’ effectiveness. The remainder of the project will focus on coming up with solutions and tools for organizations to integrate into future campaigns.
I recently got in touch with the Rockefeller Foundation about its study. Jay Geneske, the foundation’s director of digital communications, and RJ Bee, vice president at Hattaway Communications replied to questions I posed via email.
CN: Something caught my eye in the forward of your report that I didn’t see expounded upon much in it – the idea from journalists you interviewed that digital media was giving stories a longer life cycle than before. This idea seems to cut across the popular sentiment that digital media is all about 140 characters, quick response and therefore just devolves all into static. What kinds of stories were they talking about?
JG, RJB: The primary context for this discussion was around how social impact organizations tell stories about their work. But it could be applied to any type of story, really. Your note about digital media is certainly true. However, we also heard that digital media allows stories to exist for longer periods of time for two reasons. First, the “long tail” effect allows stories to have a longer life. Second, digital media provides a space for digital discussion or interaction created around stories in different mediums with potentially different audiences.
To illustrate a bit more, perhaps in the past you just read something in the Times, but now you can see separate discussions about it on Twitter, Facebook, in the comments section, on sites like Huffington Post where things are slightly repackaged, and through bloggers that take stories a step further. So this is an ideal situation for a social impact organization—a story goes beyond its original form and takes on a life of its own, hopefully leading to more engagement, and ultimately more impact on people’s lives.
CN: Did the panelists think that organizations were equally bad at communicating stories across platforms, or were certain ones particularly challenging? Were the ones that look like traditional storytelling outlets – like a blog or email – better utilized in their opinion?
JG, RJB: Generally speaking, most interviewees and participants thought that developing and executing a cohesive digital strategy was the biggest hurdle to communicating effectively on digital platforms. In fact, we heard that although execution on various platforms could be good and useful, linking all of those pieces of communication back to an overarching goal (and a direct call to action) was where organizations struggle the most.
CN: Why did panelists think that there was such a lack of thought leadership in the need for advocacy and nonprofit groups to make quality storytelling part of their core mission? Who’s to blame, in other words? Is it something that’s always been true of the sector, or is getting worse?
JG, RJB: This is an excellent question, and has many layers embedded within. We’re also not sure we will have the full answer to this until after we workshop the research. One thought is around fundraising, especially for nonprofits. We heard that there can be a tension on where dollars are expended in an organization, and that organizations are often reluctant to spend resources to advance their communications efforts. Of course, any “digital storytelling” resources would fall under these categories, so it’s even more difficult for those resources to be automatically available.
So the case has to be made and proven to senior leadership. And perhaps the case to be made is not just that they’ll attract more donors, but that the returns are multiple—for thought leadership, for differentiation among peers, and to reinforce the overall goal mission.
CN: Besides the obvious incentive that better storytelling will aid fundraising, there’s some mention in your report of holding organizations accountable for the quality of their narrative efforts. Is that something that the Rockefeller Foundation feels it and other seed organizations need to start doing in order to motivate better performance from recipient groups’ leaders?
JG: Well, we certainly want to lead by example. We have been thinking about this from both the supply and demand sides of storytelling. We know that best practices, tools and resources will help organizations tell better stories, but without some “demand side” mechanisms, many won’t take the time and effort to enact these practices. We have a few initial ideas from the research on this that we’ll work through when we workshop the findings.
CN: Can you describe the next step for the digital storytelling project in some detail? When will you start workshopping solutions?
JG: We will actually be starting the next phase immediately. First, we’ll be taking these recommendations to a bigger team within the Rockefeller Foundation to discuss exactly what our options are and the best course of action for moving forward. Then we’ll move forward to engaging with additional experts from across a variety of fields—branding, technology, media, entertainment, philanthropy and social impact organizations—to get input on ideas and reactions to content and tools we produce. There’s much more to come—stay tuned!