Field Guide: Capturing Compelling Non Profit Stories
Whether writing a final report to a donor, a quarterly newsletter, or an annual appeal, many of us look upon these assignments with trepidation. We instantly become seasoned procrastinators. Thoughts go through our heads like ‘no one is going to read this anyway.’ And then there is the time factor: What other task will I steal time from in order to write this report? This week we will look at the importance of compelling stories about the positive impact of projects.
Problem turned Opportunity.
A few years ago I was asked suddenly to do a final narrative report for a large, multi-year project. We had lost the teammate who had overseen the project—and the institutional project knowledge that left with them. I knew nothing about it, and the incomplete notes that were handed over to me no longer held cogent information. I realized this wasn’t going to be a cut-and-paste job.
And then something wonderfully transformational happened to me. With no other recourse, I armed myself with my camera and my notebook and went looking for the people and the equipment that had been funded by the donor. A new world opened up to me: people were excited to show me how well their part of the project had progressed, and to explain to me in infinite detail what an indecipherably-named piece of equipment actually did. Their enthusiasm was contagious, the project impressive.
My hastily scribbled notes were full of compelling anecdotes and my photos danced with smiling faces and action filled scenes. In short, I met new people that I never would have met in a normal day, my head was filled with new ideas, and the project re-kindled my flame for my work.
Full of energy, I set to the task of writing and selecting photos. My enthusiasm must have come across, because the donor loved the report, they were able to use some of the stories themselves, and they funded the next project. On top of the positive donor feedback, this reporting project also represented a one-week refresher from my daily grind and a chance to look through a new window into a new world within our organization. The point is: Get out into the field in order to see what your organization actually does.
Field Staff. I firmly believe that the field staff that implement projects are some of the most important people in an organization. They represent for the beneficiaries the face of an organization—they are our organizational ambassadors—and we entrust them with carrying out the project’s impact-oriented goal. These two charges represent a tremendous amount of responsibility.
But they also get to have all the fun—and I jump at the chance to spend a day with them. This is where you get the compelling stories for your reports. These field trips breathe life into your writing.
On the other hand, it can be difficult getting stories from field staff long-distance via email. They are the conduit of compelling information, but can unfortunately lose the sense of newness of their field experiences, and besides, they are working hard. So in this newsletter I’m going to focus on two things: techniques for developing compelling stories from your site visits, and techniques for helping field staff provide compelling stories—of their own.
Compelling Stories: What are they? A compelling story is an anecdote—a short story that paints a picture that makes the reader feel ‘I was there’ (juxtaposed to the normal report’s lecture about your work). What is going to capture a reader’s imagination? It can be a heart-wrenching story about an event in the day of a family suffering extreme poverty, or it can be a heart-warming story illustrating something wonderful that happened to a family as a result of your organization’s work.
Much like a famous, archetypal National Geographic photograph, the best compelling stories illustrate a single, human-centered image that supports the theme of your work, and is interwoven with one facet of the human pantheon of emotions: something readers can relate to with a sense of urgency and immediacy through joy or sorrow. This compelling story need only be one-half of a page; it is not a 30-page final report of the whole project. Short and concise, it can serve as a stand-alone side-bar in a final report, or a feature in a newsletter, or an introduction to a letter if inquiry to a donor.
In the field, the story collector’s job will be to find the compelling story line. Once found, their second task will be to collect a color palette of descriptive locations, people, objects, color, smells, sights and activities (not to mention who, what, when, where, and why) with which to paint the picture that brings the story to life. Some of the palette can be collected during conversations, some with photos.
Meeting Storytellers During Site Visits. Informal is better than formal. I’ve felt that when I’m taken on a planned tour, I’m led through canned presentations and staged interviews. People are stiff and interviews are cautious. The presentations may not reflect the true depth of the project. Your handlers are purposefully engaging you; you don’t really have the free time to think, snoop around and meet people in their natural setting.
To avoid prepared tours, I ask if I can just tag along with a field staffer on a normal day of normal rounds—and I ensure supervisors that I’ll stay out of the way and not slow things down. Staffers do incredibly interesting things with even more interesting people. Since I’m not ‘working’, I’m free to observe, be curious, think up questions, roam a bit, talk casually to people, and take photos. Invariably, things that are painfully normal for staffers turn out to be tremendously compelling.
Focus on people and their stories. You can always Google a piece of equipment the donor provided when you get home. Beneficiaries may be curious about you if you arrive unannounced. They will have questions about you, which in turn give you permission to ask lots of questions of them. These are your storytellers. Ask them about their normal lives, about their dreams, about something good that recently happened in their family. Ask if they will show you around the project.
Multitask. Have fun keeping everyone relaxed and carrying on conversations. Keep an eye on the Staffer in case she suddenly starts doing something incredibly interesting—or even better—photogenic. But keep focused on your mission of uncovering compelling stories.
Drink water. It took me a long time to realize that when I start getting a bit rummy and tired in the field, it was because I was getting dehydrated: stay hydrated. Bring lots of bottled water on the excursion. You lose sight of your mission when you get rummy.
Eat. Bring plenty of snacks for both you and the Staffer to eat in the car; don’t eat in front of the families you are visiting. Snack often; days can be long and meals infrequent and unpredictably timed. Bring baby-wipes or Handi-Wipes and clean your hands before you eat. You will be shaking lots of hands that haven’t been well-washed.
Roam. Get off by yourself by roaming around the project. You will discover new things, but better, a moment’s quiet reflection allows incredibly important questions to surface that you forgot to ask your storytellers. You might not return for a long time, so you need to get all of your questions answered now.
Take lots of notes. Don’t kid yourself: You’ll never remember the details that bring reports to life. I learned early on that I get them mixed up—so I take lots of notes.
Maintain a balanced objectivity. This newsletter that you are reading isn’t aimed at the first-time site visitor. The first visit to extreme poverty is an overwhelming cacophony of sights, sounds, emotions, and guilt, combined with a need to ‘fix’ the problem and to let people know that you care about their ‘problem’. Understandable, but not the best frame of mind for capturing mission-driven compelling stories for your organization’s department of development back home. It also sets up an unusual kind of relationship between you and the beneficiary and elicits different responses from them than you might be looking for. Tagging along on normal daily rounds with field staff means that you are entering relationships from a normal setting. Relating to people as people, and not relating to their situation helps me in keeping emotions in perspective.
I know this sound like a lot to do, but there is plenty of free time if you are tagging along and not being actively engaged by a handler.
Helping Field Staff provide compelling information. Field staff are busy, they have lost the freshness of their surroundings, and they don’t necessarily know what piece of information would be interesting to a donor or staff from headquarters. The best thing to do is to make the request as easy as possible for them, and to give them concrete examples of what you are looking for. Travelling with them is a great way for them to see what is interesting to you: driving back at the end of the day, share with them some of the compelling stories you discovered. Be sure to let them know the importance of the stories for communication with the organization’s donors.
Or, give them a written example of what you are looking for—both a representative example of a storyline, and an example of length and organizational style. If they can see that you only want three paragraphs—that will be a relief to them. Encourage them to overwrite what you’ve written with their own story. This may be much more comfortable for them than being faced with a blank piece of white paper and writer’s block. Another good technique is to have staffers tell stories conversationally to someone back at the office who can take notes and write them up.
Karen Hampson from Farm Radio (http://www.farmradio.org/) wrote me with this piece of advice:
All stories have four elements:
- a protagonist,
- a problem,
- a struggle,
- and a resolution.
So to make it easy on the field staff we ask:
- Describe the person and their life before the project.
- What difficulties was the person facing?
- How were these overcome (ideally by our project intervention!)?
- What is the impact on the person and their life?
With the answers to these questions a good story can be put together quite easily.
Thank you Karen!
I recently met with a field staffer whose job is to collect two kinds of information from beneficiaries: hard survey data from interviews, and compelling stories. She confided that it’s dysfunctional: she can’t interview people with a canned questionnaire for an hour and then expect them to slip into compelling story mode. To get her compelling stories, she has learned to plan different trips—formal trips for interviews—and informal trips for communing with storytellers.
Writing down your story. The two hardest things about writing are getting started and being too self-critical early on. So just start writing. Get one story down, and don’t worry how it sounds. When the whole story is down on paper, read back through it and fix the obvious spelling and grammar problems. Read through it a second time for clarity and make a few changes. Then put it down, take a one-day break, and revisit your story the next day when you can approach it with a fresh mind.
Enjoy the process of playing with ideas, moving some things around and embellishing others. When you are happy with the outcome, have someone else read it. Something that is clear as day to an author ‘who was there’ may not be clear to another reader. Another reader’s comments can be very valuable in helping us to get our message across. After revising the story with their useful suggestions, get away from the story again for another day.
Here comes the tough part: inside of your story lives its essence. It is now time to pare down your story by removing extra information and getting to this bare-bones essence—the focused message that you want to convey to your readers. If you have trouble with this, find someone in your office with good editorial skills to help you.
As your story takes its final form, look back through your photos and find one or two that represent a person, a theme or a concept within your story. The photos should be your best people shots: sharp, simple in composition and colorful. The photos should complement and illustrate the message that your story is conveying.
Whether your story is for a donor report, a quarterly newsletter—or for an year end appeal—there will be an institutional format to follow. But armed with two or three well-crafted, compelling, human nature stories, the formatted document will come to life.
If your donors have their hearts warmed and feel that you captured the essence of their mission in your project report, you will have a greater likelihood of maintaining and renewing your partnership. Good luck with your next writing assignment: get out there, smell the dust, feel the heat, meet the people, and enjoy your new friends—the storytellers. See next month’s companion Field Guide: Capturing Compelling Photos from the Field.
Tim Magee is the author of A Field Guide to Community Based Adaptation published by Routledge, Oxford, England.