Can messages of hope deliver the bottom line? | PBA

Méabh Friel, communications director of One Girl, considers whether needs-based content will be something we look back on in 10 years and cringe at and if we should really be telling more celebratory stories.

For a lot of development organisations that rely on community support to generate income, the best way to do this is through storytelling and to try and connect the supporter directly to the program participant. And what better way than to let the participant speak for themselves? 

NGOs and not for profits have been using powerful personal stories to illustrate the necessity of the work we do for decades – and with much success. 

A few examples of possible objectives for this are:

  1. To deliver a story that’s real and painful enough to tug at the heart-strings, but also depicts the subject in a dignified and respectful way.
  2. To deliver a story that depicts the stark reality of a situation before, and the positive results after, the program.
  3. To deliver a story that shows the real “need” that is present in a situation, but also lets you believe that change is indeed possible. 

Easy right? Wrong. Not only is it incredibly difficult to get this delicate balance right, sometimes there can be unintended consequences.

Sometimes in order to show the real and present “need” in a situation, some pretty personal questions have to be asked. “How did it feel when you realised you weren’t going to be able to put food on the table?” “How often did you have to walk for water that was likely to make you sick anyway?” “How far?” “You carried how much?” “How many of your children died?”

These questions are extreme – but you get the gist. The interviewer’s distress at their own powerlessness to do anything but bear witness, the participant’s distress at having to potentially re-live some painful memories or indeed current realities, or a non-program participant’s distress at having told their story with no promise or guarantee of help to come. 

It’s tough to think about because, for many of us, we want to get the best possible story so we can raise more funds to reach more people who need support, but we also need to be always learning and questioning and growing.

There are many brilliantly comprehensive and complex guidelines, ethics, and codes of conduct to help make sure these stories are treated with the respect, care and sensitivities necessary to “first do no harm”. But if it’s that complex and nuanced and hard to do ethically… is it maybe better to steer clear? 

I remember a colleague’s reflection years ago that has stuck with me ever since. She asked, “I wonder if needs-based content will be something we look back on in 10 years and cringe at?” 

It’s certainly a complex question, and I’m not sure of the answer. But there are some alternatives we could be exploring more. Maybe the personal, powerful stories that illustrate the necessity of the work we do could be more celebratory? Maybe there doesn’t need to be a delicate balance? Maybe the core objective could be as simple as a fourth option:

4. Deliver a story that shows the positive impact your organisation is having, and that inspires people to know and believe that not only is change possible – it’s happening and they can be a part of it.

Even as I write this I can hear a question being asked: “If we only tell happy stories, will people still be compelled to give or take action in the same way?” 

In this age of climate anxiety and “cause” fatigue, maybe it’s time we gave people something positive to strive for instead of something horrendous to avoid. 

It’s not a new concept and there are lots of tried and tested ideas that prove values-driven messages that tap into our common beliefs can bind us together and inspire action. Organisations like Common Cause Foundation provide incredible tools and solutions to help engage people’s common values (like compassion and love and hope) to inspire positive social and environmental change, and they have the research to back it up. 

Damon Gameau’s 2040 film is another great example. It paints a hopeful picture of the year 2040 if we take action on climate change now. It’s a utopian picture of a positive and happy future if we only do things right, instead of a dystopian horror about what happens if we continue to do nothing. 

The thing they both have in common is the belief that hope will inspire change – not fear. 

Shaping our storytelling, making our key messages about the values we have in common instead of the things that we have and they don’t – this is what will inspire and create change. 

And isn’t this what we are in the business of doing?


About the author: Méabh Friel is the communications director for One Girl, and is a passionate advocate for girls’ education and the ethical use of personal stories to inspire positive social change.

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