Storytelling for Social Impact
Our Better World (OBW), the digital storytelling initiative of the Singapore International Foundation, leverages the power of stories and digital media for social impact. Rebecca Lim, Head of OBW, shared with VantagePoints that their approach is to tell stories of people doing good in Asia to inspire their global online community to take action. In September 2018, OBW won the Best International Not-for-Profit Case Study Competition awarded by ESOMAR Foundation for its research on “Empowering Digital Storytelling for Good.”
Why storytelling? How can storytelling be a force for social change?
Stories are powerful. They are narratives of human experiences. It is something that is very inherent in who we are. When we have conversations with friends over meals about what do we do, we tell stories. We believe that stories reflect our shared humanity and they are powerful when they are well-told. I always like this quote by Terry Pratchett, “People think that stories are shaped by people, in fact, that it’s the other way around.” Stories shape people. That is what we believe in.
OBW shares stories to inspire action. How do you select the stories? Are there elements that elevate stories beyond a good narrative into something that moves people?
There are three broad criteria that we go by when selecting the stories. First, the story must be compelling, where it’s about lives impacting others at a human level. Second, it must be relatable to an online audience so that they can get involved. It doesn’t have to be a difficult ‘ask’. By this, we mean an accessible action that people can take. Third, we do our due diligence when featuring non-profits and social enterprises. These are the grassroots organizations, not the big ones because the latter don’t need us to tell their stories. There are many that are quietly doing the good but they don’t have the resources or the capability to tell their own stories. We believe that’s where the opportunity lies to unearth these good stories and tell them to an online audience and draw them to take action. I like to think that if a story is memorable and authentic, it actually moves people to act.
“Different stories have resulted in different impact.”
How do you develop a storytelling strategy that makes the community want to be involved?
For this to work, many pieces of the building block need to come together. It’s a process from story sourcing to story production to story distribution. Once we say yes to a story, we then decide how best to tell it – through a video, photo essay, or a text story – with the audience in mind. We have learned that you cannot just tell a good story without thinking about how you are going to distribute it online. What’s the best angle that would be most relatable to the target audience to draw them in? Call to action varies from story to story because the support required is different for each one. To do this, we decide who among our network of filmmakers, writers, and photographers would be the best match to tell the story. How the storyteller tells the story and how the relationship is built between the storyteller and the story subject are important.
We develop a customized distribution and engagement plan for each story. The digital space is very cluttered so we need to find a way to reach people and draw them in through the right headlines, the right thumbnails, and the right social media copy. I would say it’s really art and science. The art of storytelling plus the science of data analytics around it. It brings together the aspect of what makes a good story and how do you distribute it well.
In a typical organization, the content team is separate from the marketing team, but in this case, the process needs to be integrated, where both expertise in my team could look at the different aspects. Of course with this, you cannot exclude the tech platform. What we have currently is a content website, but we are slowly evolving to be able to engage our community and integrate story actions on our website. The challenge always in the digital space is that things keep developing. How do you keep evolving? Keep your eye on the ball and tell compelling stories and inspire people to act.
What is the most memorable campaign you’ve run? Why? Do you have an ideal campaign?
Every story that we roll out is a different campaign. Different stories have resulted in different impact. Some resulted in more people taking action (e.g. volunteer, donate, support), others resulted in more awareness, while some resulted in a ripple effect. In a sense, there’s no ideal campaign.
One memorable campaign we had was on Cactus Foundation, a non-profit based in India that is committed to fighting child sexual abuse. While it was a very difficult topic and a very difficult story to tell, it resulted in more than 1,000 volunteer inquiries for the organization. It wasn’t just about people saying, “I want to volunteer.” More importantly, it opened up conversations and many approached Cactus Foundation to share their sexual abuse experience, including a 70-year-old lady. The same story caught the attention of someone from the Philippines doing similar work and wrote a letter to the founder of Cactus Foundation asking if they can connect and cross-collaborate. That for me is a powerful consequence of how a story well-told can have such an impact.
“When working in a non-profit space, both heart and head must be involved. We need to live out our values internally as well as externally.”
You unearth stories of people doing good in Asia and share them with the global community, did you previously find that these stories were underreported?
We learned through research we did seven years ago that there was very little coverage of people doing good across Asia. We know they exist, we know that they are doing it but their stories are not covered by mainstream media. At the time, we found that video stories of people doing good in Asia tend to be either very corporate or guilt trip type. On the other hand, you see a lot of good content coming out from the United States and Africa. So we thought there must be a way to unveil these stories from Asia. Since then, we have seen a growing number of media outlets that broadcast these stories. Although it is still a very small percentage compared to all the news and digital content out there.
“Stories are powerful. They shape people.”
In the six years since OBW was established, what has been your most significant learning? What experience surprised and/or challenged you the most?
The most significant learning has been to always understand all stakeholders – from the story subjects to the storytellers to the online audience. Where are they coming from? What value does OBW give them? It always comes from a customer-first perspective. Once we see it from their point of view and understand what matters to them, only then can we provide real value.
The surprises come when you randomly hear the impact of the stories and how it has traveled. For example, a filmmaker in Malaysia, while scrolling his Facebook feed, saw that his cousin shared an OBW story. He went to our website and clicked one of our photo essays that profiled an HIV shelter located not far from Kuala Lumpur. In that story was a photo of Mr. Tan looking out the window and showed that he had been separated from his family for many years and would love to be reunited with them. The filmmaker went to the shelter and befriended Mr. Tan, and as he was talking to him, he felt he wanted to help Mr. Tan. Early this year, during Chinese New Year, Mr. Tan had a reunion dinner with his family for the first time in years. In addition, the filmmaker did a full-blown documentary about it. This is an example of what surprises us. The ripple effect of the stories is just amazing.
Building the right team for this has been one of the key challenges. Not only do you need the best skill set on content, tech, digital marketing, and community building, you also need to find the right people with the right heart. When working in a non-profit space, both heart and head must be involved. How do you build this team with a shared purpose? We need to live out our values internally as well as externally. The other challenging aspect is how to build a sustainable model. The reality is that we need to constantly evolve our model. Storytelling for social impact is at its early stage in Asia unlike in the United States, where there are foundations and philanthropists that believe and fund media for good platforms. But we believe digital is here to stay and we believe that there are people who see the potential of digital storytelling for social impact. We want to be able to bring these partners together to make this happen and take it to the next level.
What is your vision for OBW?
Each one has the power to act and make a difference. In OBW, we believe in the power of stories to inspire. We envision stories bringing out the best in people so we can collectively build a better world. We want to grow and be known for our quality and signature content. So far we have been the one telling the stories, but we are moving toward community-generated stories. We want to encourage those that have watched our stories and acted on them to write a blog post about their experience. We have started doing this. Our community wants to know what happens after a story is told. We want to know if someone has taken action. Imagine a Trip Advisor-like platform for social impact. That can be very powerful and we haven’t seen anything like that yet.
We also imagine a tech platform that is not just focused on content, but a space where the community contributes stories, connect with people and causes, and cross-collaborate. Currently, the story-actions on the website lead people out of the website. Moving forward, we want the actions to be taken on the platform so that we can track them. Can we have community chapters in different parts of Asia? Imagine like a TED/TEDx equivalent for those who believe in the power of stories for social impact. This is OBW playing a catalytic role to enable others to tell these stories to a wider audience.
What most concerns you about the world today? What gives you hope?
The notion “every man for himself” concerns me. The world is becoming a very scary place. It’s depressing when you hear stories across the world. But the work that we do gives me hope. I come across so many people doing good work and helping others in the community. This is what drives us. When more people are inspired, they’ll tell themselves “actually, it must not be every man for himself. I can play a part and I can make difference and collectively then we can shape our better world.
As Head of Our Better World, Rebecca Lim combines her eye for opportunities with her love for people, bringing partners alongside this journey of pursuing a shared vision of pioneering digital disruption for social impact in Asia.
Rebecca’s experience spans strategic communications, integrated marketing, public relations, and brand management. Her experience over the last two decades has been in the sectors of her twin passions – tourism and non-profit. After a life-changing three-year stint in Mumbai, she now applies her marketing and communications skills to impact lives through digital storytelling.