Better Storytelling: What ‘Works’ in Global Development?

Better Storytelling: What ‘Works’ in Global Development?

Alison Carlman, GlobalGiving

This is the second article in a three-part series about GlobalGiving’s experiments testing the findings of The Narrative Project. Read the first article here.

When I first learned about The Narrative Project I was very excited (which reveals a lot about the depth of my nerdiness) because it was the first large-scale study that I’d encountered that demonstrated how positive narratives in global development could actually move people to become supporters. I’d seen plenty of evidence that pity-based narratives in fundraising appeals will motivate people to open their wallets. But it’s 2016, and there are many communicators in development who work to promote more respectful, nuanced storytelling that goes beyond the flies-in-the-eyes appeals we’ve all seen. So when I encountered the Narrative Project, you can see why I was so glad there was finally data to show that these alternative narratives might also work, and what’s more, specific tactics might help us improve the empathy-based approach we already use.

The promise of the Narrative Project was that messages and stories carrying certain narrative themes (independence, shared values, partnership and progress) would motivate certain segments of the population (in the US, UK, France, and Germany) to become (theoretical) supporters of global development. The goal was to change attitudes about aid at a very high level, and the data suggests that it can. But very few global development communicators who are employed by NGOs have the luxury of communicating for the sake of attitude change alone. Most of us are hired to tell stories that either move people to give or to take action for a cause. We need to share stories that work in other ways. And many of my peers were eager to start using the recommendations in their communications and fundraising.

I was one of ten nonprofit communicators who received a grant to test the Narrative Project in the wild. We wanted to find out how easy it was for nonprofits to adopt the recommended narratives, and then to find out how the Narrative Project impacted fundraising.

What did we find out? Did the Narrative Project work? Well, no. But also yes. It all depends on what we mean when we ask, “what works?”

Defining our goals.

As communicators in development, let’s ask ourselves this: are our stories only successful if they actually motivate people to give? Or are we looking to change public attitudes about our work at-large? Can a story actually help us achieve our mission of helping others gain empowerment, freedom, health, or security?

Narrative Project Pic2

In the corporate world people talk of the Triple Bottom Line: responsible companies make decisions that help them benefit People, Planet, and Profit. I’ll argue that a Triple Bottom Line also exists for nonprofit communicators and fundraisers: we have the responsibility to share narratives that edify the People we intend to help, that support the Planet (the social sector ecosystem) and also drive Profit (or funding for the cause).  

We can’t only ask whether a communication strategy “works” for fundraising; we should also ask ourselves: “How are we empowering this girl by helping tell her story, rather than objectifying and further marginalizing her on a public scale? Are our stories damaging the public’s understanding of the problem, and their perceived ability to make a difference? How does our content affect the way nonprofits and “beneficiaries” view themselves in the system?”

PPP Pict

The Triple Bottom Line for Nonprofit Communicators: edify the people we intend to help, support civil society,                  and drive funding.

The Narrative Project was designed to serve the Planet bottom line, by improving attitudes and perceptions about Global Development. And many of the Narrative Project recommendations did align with principles in The Development Element, a tool I frequently use to describe more dignified communications that ultimately serve the People we intend to support. But according to our research, The Narrative Project didn’t move the needle on the Profit (or fundraising) bottom line.

What we’re learning.

The most important thing to come out of this study was a question. As communicators in global development, here’s how we should measure our success: how do the language, images, and stories we use impact the triple bottom line—the People, Planet, and (non-)Profit motivations behind our work? One or two of these goals isn’t enough; we’re aiming for a good balance of all three, or we should at least be aware when we’re making tradeoffs.  

With this important question in mind, GlobalGiving will keep testing and refining our narratives to get closer to a method that serves all three bottom lines. We’ll likely never be “done,” but we’ll hopefully get iteratively closer to our goals of equally strengthening the people we intend to help, the nonprofit/global development ecosystem, and the funding channels that support global development work.

Do you think this Triple Bottom Line approach is helpful for communicators in global development? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Alison Carlman is the Director of Marketing and Communications at GlobalGiving. This is the second in a three-part series. Please email us at with any questions!

1 Comment

Elaine McLevie

about 4 years ago

This piece touched on the concerns I have always had about how what we put on a worldwide stage may cause unforeseen problems for our refugee clients who are very anxious to protect their families and relations by not allowing their present whereabouts to be widely known. It is a very balanced and well thought out approach especially in pointing out that the process has to be well thought out and that any apparently quick fix is not the right way to go!

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