Digital storytelling for not-for-profits: The Kony 2012 Case Study

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Anyone who had a pulse and an internet connection in 2012 likely remembers KONY 2012. Made by a not-for-profit organisation called Invisible Children, it was a short film designed to highlight the atrocities committed in Uganda by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

It was too long for ‘digital storytelling’, at 29 minutes long. An online audience just wouldn’t pay attention for that long.

It was about an obscure African warlord that wasn’t well known.

It had one goal, to make Kony famous.

Despite everything working against the campaign, it had one thing going for it: a compelling story.

The campaign also featured iconic pop art on posters and flyers that supporters distributed.

As a result, it became the fastest growing viral video of all time. Within 6 days, it had reached 100 million views. It mobilised people globally, with posters, flyers, and social media shares of the video. Celebrities came out in support of the campaign, including Bill Gates, Ellen Page and Rihanna.

It also led to a huge increase in donations to Invisible Children, allowing them to significantly increase their work in Africa. Invisible Children sold US$13.6 million worth of merchandise, and received US$5.8 million worth of donations.

This is just one example of the power of stories, but not-for-profits face two key issues in capitalising on storytelling: finding the stories, and budget to produce the story.

The reality is every not-for-profit has a great story about how they started. Not-for-profit organisations are almost always born from passion; passion for a social issue, passion for a need, passion for justice. This passion was strong enough for a person, or group of people, to create an organisation to tackle the issue, so why not share this story with the community?

Case studies are also another great source of stories. We’ve seen case studies put to great use by a range of organisations, and they are powerful in putting the viewer in the shoes of the person telling the story; create real empathy for the storyteller and the cause.

It’s just about identifying stories that will resonate with different audiences, and telling them in a compelling way. It’s ok if you tell a story which won’t resonate with everyone, you may produce stories for a particular niche or demographic, but they need to appeal to the group you’re targeting.

It is important to also let your viewers know what action they can take because of a specific issue – if they’re engaged by the cause, and want to help as a result, make sure you let them know how. This is one thing the Kony 2012 campaign did very successfully – they mobilised their audience, they sold Action Kits with all the tools their supporters needed and raised funds to help further their work.

Digital storytelling does not have to be hugely expensive. You can scale digital storytelling depending on your campaign, and your budget. You can produce great looking videos with just a smart phone, tripod (or steady hands!), microphone, and a well-lit environment, and there are great free tools like Windows Movie Maker that you can use to edit it all together.

Kony 2012 is at the more extreme end of the budget scale, with $140,000 spent producing the film, but the returns justify the investment in the film. Majority of this cost, $93,000, was labour, with equipment totaling just $3,000.

Invisible Children founded by a group of filmmakers, so the largest cost of producing their film was their own time. If you don’t have digital storytelling skills in-house, you can always outsource story production, or train interested internal staff.

There is a range of options at your disposal to tell your story, but remember the story is the most important part. A great story recorded on a mobile phone will be more powerful than a poor story recorded on a huge budget.

Creating the story is only one part of the equation. You need to make sure it is seen as far and wide as possible. We all want to ‘go viral’, it’s the holy grail of free media, but what can you do to make sure it is seen by as many people as possible?

Modern advertising platforms and tools allow segmentation in a way we could previously only dream about. Imagine being able to craft different stories designed to appeal to different groups of people, and promote stories to these people directly.

We can increase the effectiveness of fundraising campaigns by producing stories particularly for mothers, or fathers, or single people, or couples. These stories should be coupled with specific calls to action, and targeted to them through paid advertising placements on platforms like Facebook.

Don’t forget your existing donors and partners though. Your newsletters, websites, and other existing communication platforms are a great start, and can encourage those who already feel strongly about your cause to help you with distribution of your stories. They are the catalyst for promoting your story, helping to spread it as far and wide as possible.

Hopefully you can start to see the value in sharing your stories through digital storytelling, and how they can be used to boost your fundraising efforts. The best thing to do is just jump in and get started!

An edited version of this article appeared in Third Sector Magazine in 2015.

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