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Why storytelling is charity’s best weapon for good

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It was a slow news day when Cara Jones was assigned to cover a fatal car accident and was sent to the victim's home.

When she arrived at the address, a teen girl sitting on the porch rushed up to her. "What happened to my mom?" she asked. "My dad called and told me to wait here." Jones watched in horror as her camera crew's presence confirmed the girl's worst fears.

It was the beginning of the end of Jones' journalism career — she no longer wanted to document fear and tragedy. She spent a year backpacking through South America and Europe, and when she came back she thought about the stories she'd done that had moved her — like one about a 6 year-old girl paralyzed by a bullet who forgave her attacker. These stories gave meaning to her work.

She decided to become a video storyteller, and now Jones is the founder of Storytellers for Good, which uses photojournalistic techniques to create videos for nonprofit groups for fundraising and brand building.

Stories like this one about Jones — a crisis, a discovery, a change for the better — are powerful because people are naturally drawn to stories they can relate to. Marketing strategist Andy Smith calls this "engagement," the ability to make people feel emotionally connected and helping them achieve goals through establishing a personal connection.

While companies like General Motors and Coca-Cola are clamoring to create these kinds of connections with their customers in an increasingly crowded space of advertising and social media, it is a natural fit for nonprofit groups, which are rich with genuine stories and real-life characters in the work they do. Smart nonprofits like Save the Children, and corporate giving enterprises like Tom's Shoes, are ahead of the game in storytelling — sometimes in ways that their corporate peers can only envy.

They are using stories — especially video storytelling — to raise funds and build brands. Last year, Mama Hope, an African nonprofit group, released a lighthearted video following four successful African young men to dispel Hollywood stereotypes about African males that has racked up more than 1.2 million views on YouTube. A Rainforest Alliance video has been seen by almost 4 million. About 56 percent of people who support nonprofit groups on social media say they are motivated by compelling storytelling, according to advertising firm MDG, and the average donation through social media has increased every year since 2010, from $38 to $59.

Power of stories

You know those emotional, narrative Apple ads, the ones that have you tearing up and sending them on to your friends and family?

There's a reason those kinds of ads take off, says Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker, co-author of marketing strategy book "The Dragonfly Effect."

"Stories serve as glue to unify communities," she says. They get passed around, and they are much more memorable than statistics or anecdotes. They get told and retold and become infectious, she says.

She uses the example of a company called charity:water as a case study in her book. Founder Scott Harrison went through a similar transformation — he was a successful New York nightclub and fashion promoter but felt empty and volunteered on a hospital ship that served some of the world's poorest countries.

He came back and launched charity:water by asking friends to donate $31 instead of getting him birthday gifts, and raised $15,000 in just a few months to build wells in Uganda. Seven years later, the effort has snowballed into $20 million in donations and 3,000 water projects and has provided clean water to 1.4 million people.

Part of what has propelled Harrison's project isn't just the cause, but Harrison's journey that led him to start the project, which he shared through media interviews and YouTube videos. Sharing his story helped viewers fall in love with Harrison and his cause.

Importance of authenticity

As powerful as good stories are, it's harder for corporations to come by them, and when they do, the viewer is often aware that it's fictional. Take, for example, an Apple ad about a sullen teen who makes a heartwarming family video with his iPad. It borrows the narrative structure, and it's compelling, but it lacks the depth of a true story, says Jones, and that gives nonprofit groups an edge in getting consumers' attention.

"Apple creates feelings, you get that "awww" sensation, but you know that Apple made it up. There's added value when it's about real people because you get a sense of what's possible for me, or for the world. It makes it more personal."

When Jones left TV news for storytelling, it became clear to her that nonprofit groups are a subset that has the most amazing stories to tell. "They have this treasure they are sitting on and don't even know it."

CauseVox, which offers nonprofit storytelling services for crowd-sourcing and fundraising, estimates that each story that is posted on a CauseVox fundraising site yields $109 in donations. One of its clients, United Theological Seminary, saw a 30 percent increase in giving when it incorporated storytelling videos in its fundraising.

Charity:water has now released over 200 videos, including one about 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith, who tried to raise $300 for clean water for her birthday wish, but was killed in a car crash. Word spread about her wish, and Rachel's fund ended up raising $1.2 million. The video, which is slow-moving and beautifully shot to a soundtrack of piano music, details her story and follows her mother's visit to a village in Ethiopia that has clean water thanks to Rachel's fund. The video has had more than 83,000 views on YouTube. That's small change compared to a Katy Perry video, but it's on par with some of Bill Gate's Ted talks, for example.

Heavy stories aren't always the most powerful, though. In Mama Hope's video, young African men joke about Matthew McConaughey movies and deliver tongue-in-cheek lines about how they think that "smiling is stupid," and "love shooting machine guns from boats."

The combination of a story, statistics and real-life need is what makes a story so compelling, according to Aaker, who says that stories are meaningful, memorable and create a personal connection. Research shows that we don't usually use logic to make decisions, she says. We usually use emotion — and stories trigger that.

She uses the example of Save the Children in her research, which conducted an experiment using two brochures — one that contained just statistics about children in need and another that also used statistics, but included a story about a young girl. The respondents were given $5 for their time, and asked if they would like to donate any of that to the cause. Those who received just the statistics gave $1.43 on average. The stats plus the story resulted in $2.38. We don't remember statistics, according to Aaker. We do remember stories, and we use them to glean meaning.

Inspiring hope

We all remember the stark Sally Struthers Christian Children's Fund infomercials of the ’80s, but most of Jones' clients, who are using storytelling videos at fundraising galas and pushing them through social media, find that today's effective storytelling offers solutions and hope for change rather than just dire circumstances.

"People want to be a part of something that is inspiring and makes them feel good and are motivated from that place," she says.

One of Jones' favorite videos is one that she did recently for Back On My Feet Chicago, which follows three homeless men who train for the Chicago Marathon. Each of the men talks about his struggles with homelessness and job loss, then successfully completes the marathon and talks about building confidence through teamwork and their subsequent success in finding new work. The piece helped them raise $10,000 at their next fundraiser, and affected the staff as well as the donors.

"Investing in stories and giving employees time to tell them is not only valuable for the fundraising process, but valuable in shifting the culture or an organization," says Jones. "As people become storytellers, they get a more deeply felt sense of the power of their work."

Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com