Some days I wake up and think that storytelling seems to have become the buzzword du jour (well, I don’t think this immediately upon awakening…after a cup or two of coffee perhaps…a time when “buzz”word takes on meaning). Inviting members, supporters, constituents or whatever part of your audience you like to “tell their story” now seems to be step one of the online engagement handbook.
But once something enters the handbook it can be mishandled. Organizations run the risk of commoditizing stories by using them primarily as a tool, a tactic, a method for getting towards “engagement” and increasingly elusive fundraising and/or advocacy goals.
By their very nature, stories are personal. Those of us who write blog posts, fundraising emails and other material about the issues we work on ever day sometimes forget the personal nature of stories. A good story – with plot, hero, crisis and resolution – does nothing if not peel back the onion over the soul of the teller.
A story can give a glimpse into the experience, heart and mind of people. This is personal and can be a bit scary, which helps explain why good stories can be so hard to write. Despite evidence provided by Facebook’s rise (or perhaps evidenced by the often shallow nature of Facebook interaction), sharing is not simple. Most people have a hard time revealing or hinting at details of their lives for an audience. We’re shy. Or wary. Reticent. Or just way too damn busy to bother.
Organizations Behave Like Organizations, not People
Organizations too often approach storytelling projects as, well, the organizations they are and not as people. It’s hard to explain the purpose of the story, what will happen to it, what the organization will offer in return for the story. Organizations dive into the technical aspects – guidelines, format for the web page, forms, where do photos and video actually live – and can pay too little attention to the story itself and the opportunity for creating and strengthening sustainable relationships that can offer more value to the organization and the storyteller.
We can, with a good sized email list or other audience, make a request for user stories – narrative, audio, video, photos or a combination – and get responses. But it’s easy to undervalue the opportunity and/or not be sure how much value there might be. Interaction and relationship-building has a reputation for being staff resource intensive – and it can be tough and not necessarily scale. Rather than undermine the potential, however, by not giving a project enough resources and the participants enough support.
That’s why it is great to see an online storytelling website with a purpose in mind and a fair value proposition for the audience while providing the support needed to help the audience craft great stories.
Aside from being one of those words that I always have to type slowly in order to spell correctly, Kaleidoscope is the latter half of the domain name of a great new online storytelling site recently launched by the Colorado Health Foundation: ColoradoKaleidoscope.org. I recently sat down with Lisa Harris, Director of Communications for Web and New Media at the Colorado Health Foundation to find out more about the project.
The Colorado Health Foundation provides funding to organizations in Colorado working on/with health issues. The foundation is not itself a service provider with a traditional membership. It serves and supports grantees who in turn do everything from health policy advocacy to provide direct health services in a clinic.
What then might the Foundation need with a storytelling website? Colorado Kaleidoscope is primarily geared towards helping grantees tell the stories of their work and the people and programs they support. The audience here – those creating stories – is not “everyone” or “all members” so much as a fairly discrete set of organizations and people working in and with them. The goal is to help organizations funded by the Foundation do a better job telling stories about their work (or helping them help their members tell stories). This may raise awareness, funding and improve the sustainability of the organizations and programs they manage.
It seems important to note that the Foundation understands that putting together these stories – be they video or narrative – takes organizational resources away from other work. It is a bit of a risk and the time involved is always a reason organizations can use for not trying something. Recognizing this, the Foundation decided to give general operating grants to all organizations that had stories published on the website. Lisa Harris notes that in addition to the capacity building/training opportunities discussed below, the Foundation wanted to be very respectful of grantees’ time and energy and offer grant funding as a key part of the project. Videos published to the website receive a $5,000 grant award and narratives with optional photography receive a $1,000 grant award.
Help Your Storytellers tell their Stories
One aspect of Colorado Kaleidoscope worth highlighting is the investment in storytelling education and support. It would have been much easier, faster and cheaper to put up a single page form that says “We want you to share your stories and we’ll share them with others so send us your stories, your photos and maybe a link to a video. Thanks.” This would produce some video, text and photos. But would it produce stories and content that raise awareness and meet other goals? Probably not.
The “how to tell a great story” resources on Colorado Kaleidoscope include a webinar about storytelling, documentations and guides in pdf format and even an opportunity to participate in “office hours” with the Foundation’s video production partner, Chance Multimedia (quality time spent with a experienced video producer can be invaluable). There are examples of both video and narrative stories, galleries of stories and a storytelling 101 toolkit. These materials might just be of value to other organizations thinking about a storytelling project.
The emphasis on guidance is a good model for organizations seeking stories from their members/supporters. Provide or link to examples – preferably real, project-related ones but even examples prepared for the sake of demonstrating something would help. If asking for narratives link to a pop-up window with a story or two in it. Give folks a better sense of what you’re looking for and what a “good story” might feel like. Create a short webinar or screencast talking about storytelling and maybe even demonstrating the submission process. Some items will take more time to create and support than others so don’t go overboard but, remember, stories can be hard to share. Crafting them well can be tough, too. Don’t underestimate the value of a little support and hand-holding. A little might go a long way.
A Well-Chosen Risk
It is, frankly, a bit of a risk for the Colorado Health Foundation to put resources into a storytelling project. There are, after all, programs across the state that could use a bit of extra money to provide more health services. We all know that government funding is not exactly growing while costs and need keep rising. Yet, done well, the Kaleidoscope storytelling project has the potential to provide extraordinary value to Coloradans and public health. A key element missing from the public dialog about health care and its costs is the story behind healthcare – the real people involved, the time that providers spend grappling with their funding and clients, the pain and struggle of individuals navigating their personal health decisions and outcomes.
We all have stories – good, bad, ugly, hopeful – about healthcare but more often than not healthcare is a bureaucratic morass that’s too complex and convoluted to approach. It needs humanity to be appreciated and if Colorado Kaleidoscope stories help Foundation grantees share the tales of their work and the people affected they stand to move the needle forward in getting attention and understanding for their work. This is the sort of attention that changes policy, reworks budgets and create compassionate relationships amongst people and organizations. This could be very good.