Storytelling and the search for empathy

Storytelling and the search for empathy

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How do you connect your supporters with beneficiaries whose struggles are vastly different from their own? Jenny Ramage presents three innovative storytelling techniques that hold aloft this fundraising Holy Grail


The fundraising world is full of stories, all competing for the public’s attention. Cutting through the noise is challenge enough, but when your cause is far removed from your supporters’ realities, making that all-important emotional connection presents an additional problem.


In this month’s focus on storytelling, we consider three intriguing ways charities are rising to the challenge through the creative use of imagery.


The beauty of simplicity


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, said Leonardo da Vinci – and this is something CAFOD has capitalised on in its Lost Family Portraits collection.


“With a small window of opportunity, you have to make a single point in the most direct, simple, impactful way possible”, says Karen Toftera, digital manager at the charity.


The photo project, developed by the advertising agency, M&C Saatchi for the Catholic aid agency, aims to bring to light the impact of human loss in the current Syrian conflict.


The familiar setting of a photographic studio is set in stark contrast to the reality of life in a refugee camp. Each shot shows a refugee family who have lost someone because either they’ve had to leave them behind when running from Syria, or the person was killed in the conflict by bombs or execution.


Although each photo is accompanied by a more detailed text narrative, in themselves the faces of the family members tell an honest story of hardship, disruption and despair, with immediate emotional impact on the viewer.


“It doesn’t take long for the audience to understand exactly what the message is” says Karen. “And with its simplicity comes power – bringing home just what it means to be under attack in a war and having to run and leave everything: possessions, home and loved ones.”


The photographic collection has attracted global media attention, helping raise awareness of a cause that is otherwise afforded scant coverage.


An immersive experience


Photography has been used as an ‘emotional response’ tool for decades, offering viewers a window onto another world. Of course, there is nothing quite like ‘being there’, but for many charities, particularly those working on overseas causes, that’s proven impossible – until now.


With the advent of virtual reality (VR) headsets comes the ability to harness the power of ‘presence’, in a relatively quick and inexpensive way. For charities working in causes far removed, socially and geographically, from supporters’ own realities, the technology presents a golden opportunity: the window is now a portal.


Amnesty International UK was the first charity to make use of this new canvas for storytelling when it took its Virtual Reality Aleppo campaign to the streets in May last year. Using 360-degree images uploaded to a VR headset, the charity has been able to virtually place members of the UK public in the streets of a Syrian city, immersing them in the destruction caused by Assad’s barrel bombing.


The 360-degree photos, taken by activists in the streets of Aleppo using inexpensive smartphones, are emailed back the charity and uploaded to the VR headsets (which cost around £15 each) ready to take out to the public the very next day.


“We’ve seen that these immersive experiences are having a genuinely transformative effect for the supporter on the street or at home”, says the charity’s innovations manager, Reuben Steains.


“We’ve had a really strong response. People have been in tears and others have expressed shock and outrage at what they’re seeing in the viewers. Overwhelmingly, people said that they feel moved, more informed and educated about Syria and barrel bombs.


“This is also translating to increased direct debit sign-ups on the street.”


The charity has continued the use of both VR and 360 photos with the launch last month of its #360Syria website, which hosts its Fear of the Sky campaign.


The interactive site enables visitors to navigate around full-screen 'photospheres' which capture the apocalyptic scenes and sounds after barrel bombing attacks. Plus there is a VR option for people who have access to headsets – global sales of which are set to soar to 2.5 million in 2016.


Something to relate to


The ability to relate to and compare your own life experiences with others’ is another proven way to provoke empathy. It was this angle that Wateraid took with its new interactive film, Parallel Lives, launched in January as part of its Deliver life appeal.


The dual-narrative film, filmed partly in a busy UK maternity ward and partly in a hospital in Tanzania, juxtaposes the ease with which people can access water in the UK with the difficulty of sourcing fresh, uncontaminated water in Tanzania.


With the click of a button, viewers can move between two very different worlds, and experience what life is like for midwives Juliana Msoffe in rural Tanzania and in the UK.


“One of the biggest challenges facing international NGOs when producing films is making the issues relevant to a UK audience”, explains Catherine Feltham, the film’s producer at Wateraid.


“Giving birth in hospital with no clean water or proper sanitisation might be a hard concept for a UK audience to understand. However, the act of giving birth is universal, and we wanted to find a way to connect the story to a typical UK experience.”


The interactive feature allows viewers to have a unique experience with the film, says Catherine. “Different parts of the film affect people differently, so if we'd have edited it as a linear film, we would have taken away the extra engagement of interactivity that Parallel Lives allows”.


From the direct to the immersive to the interactive, there are many ways to connect people with causes through imagery, and we think these inspiring campaigns are three of the best examples out there. You can add your own favourites to the list by commenting below.


This is the third instalment in our focus on storytelling. Click the links to see part one and part two.


Jenny Ramage is editor of The Fundraiser


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