A do-over

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The real people behind the cause

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women labourers, Bagan, Burma

One of the first challenges in communications for nonprofits is how to relay the often complex issues organizations are dealing with. But in talking about these issues, the key is figuring out how to tell stories that will engage audiences and help them relate to situations outside their usual space. Imagining refugees in Southern Sudan struggling to increase their literacy, or indigenous fisherwomen in Sri Lanka fighting climate change flooding would not be an easy task. So how do you engage, and not just report on people’s terrible plight, full of numbers and stats that lose the human element?


In the documentary REPORTER, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof explains his method of capturing readers’ attention, and delivering the most impact. In one scene, he’s asking a group of refugees in the Congo who is the most injured, who has the worst story. When one man tells him about an injured relative, he asks bluntly, “How long is she going to live? Will she die soon?” When the reply is no, he immediately moves on to find a more desperate story. While this may seem callous, Kristof explains that he needs to find the most extreme and most shocking stories, to combat the common fatigue of readers who have become desensitized to brutality and horror, especially in the developing world. He shocks them to stop and read about one person, and then gives them the broader context of how and why this situation is happening and what should be done about it.

I get his point that for readers to care and connect to issues outside their immediate surroundings, they need to be led beyond the reports of mass human suffering, to hear one person’s grave story. And I think this applies to the broader nonprofit world, giving a voice to challenges in our communities through the personal experience of one person.

One of my roles as a volunteer at a refugee organization was to create profiles of women living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The profiles would be used for funders and customers of the handicraft goods produced as part of the livelihood program. While I had conducted interviews before, sitting down with women inside a refugee camp was a totally different situation. The environment itself was part of the story. You could tell that some of the women were more experienced in interviews, having told their stories many times before, with matter-of-fact anecdotes and well-summarized accounts. But I remember 30 year-old Naw Moo Paw who was new to the livelihood program and seemed shy and nervous. Her story of Burmese military taking her husband by gunpoint from their home to be a slave porter, while she was left to farm their land six months pregnant, was disturbing to say the least. I will never forget the emotions crossing her face as she recounted why they had left everything behind and risked their lives to get to safety. She was so open and vulnerable in telling the personal details of how she came to the refugee camp, and what she hoped for her family’s future. I wanted to convey all of this, to help readers see how she wasn’t a “distant stranger”, but someone they likely shared things in common. And I wanted to demonstrate what was helping, while not glossing over the fact that there was no magic solution to make this all better.

On the other side, preparing communications pieces for different kinds of advocacy work meant I needed numbers and research for briefs or press releases to support the reports of violations we were bringing to official platforms. The audiences varied and had different information needs- like the Special Rapporteurs to the UN, high-ranking government officials, or teams of activists attending international conferences on sustainable development.

But I never forgot that there were real women behind those documents, who were bravely facing discrimination and violence in their communities and destruction of their environments. Along with the individual stories, powerful images were also necessary to bring out the women behind the facts and figures.


International Women's Day 2012. Credit: Elena Stanciu

Credit: Elena Stanciu

I often teased colleagues as they left for conferences or events to please, please try to get us some action shots of the women they would be meeting at training workshops, conferences or trips to major platforms like the UN. I wanted to show the diverse personalities in the movement. I wanted to capture the dynamism of activists, either on their own or in small groups, as they gave rallying talks, drummed up support at roundtable discussions or marched in protests. Yet all of the rousing and inspiring shots of them were unfortunately not being captured. Now usually this would be handled by the communications team, but with a small organization and lots of travel, this was often not  possible. To be fair to my colleagues, they had so many things to handle at one time, and playing photographer often came at the end of the day, when they had five minutes to breathe.

It’s also a skill to be learned, so we invited a great trainer through VSO to give a basic images workshop.  This helped staff understand how to identify a useful or eye-catching image and how to frame it, using different angles or perspectives. It takes practice I know, but it’s key to building an strong image database that features the work your org is doing, not just stock photos.

And we asked budding photographers to help us out, volunteers who were keen to get involved (and use their fancy DLSR cameras which we didn’t own). We just had to make it clear that the shots would be ours, and we could use them for whatever purposes, giving them credit of course if they wished.


Screenshot 2- Rio+20 video

But strongest of all was sharing a moving image of a woman demanding that her rights be respected and protected- like telling their governments they must take action. This was done in our advocacy videos for Rio+20 for example, on sustainable development. It was powerful seeing and hearing them in their own voices identify issues that affect them directly, something no press release, however well-crafted, could impart. Tweeting with social media expert Claire Kerr recently, we agreed that nonprofits don’t use video enough. Yet it’s an awesome tool to share stories and one that has become much more accessible with technology-friendly equipment and editing programs. And you don’t have to hire a professional to do it. iPhones and Androids now have good video capacity and personal footage can have more impact than a slick-looking production.

The point is to find ways to really connect with your audiences and tell your stories, whether they be donors, members, campaigners or prospective supporters. And with the prevalence of social media platforms, there are easy ways to share stories with your audiences so they can see the people behind the facts, figures and reports, and feel motivated to do something.



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