Storytelling as Advocacy: Whose story is it?

Strategic Philanthropy
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As someone who has been in the field of grantmaking – both in government and philanthropy – I’ve had many, many reports “submitted” to me and, truth be told, too many of these have been put directly on the shelf, where they have remained.  While it is clearly important to analyze the results of initiatives, what really matters is that this information is applied in a way that leads to sustained social change.  An emerging trend in grantmaking is helping to empower community members to tell their own stories in a way that builds local capacity to strategically use information.  

The California Endowment invests in storytelling as a core strategy of their change efforts. The Endowment’s Healthy Eating Active Communities (HEAC) seeks to prevent childhood obesity by changing the environments children inhabit.  And to make that change, the Endowment believes you have to find the right language.  So HEAC hired professional journalist Sylvia Sukop to interview community residents and write up their success stories.  They also supported students to produce videos in collaboration with Public Matters, a group of artists, educators and media professionals. You Can't Put a Price on That tells the students’ story of converting a local food market to showcase healthy snacks.  Meet Me at Third & Fairfax chronicles student Lae Schmidt's arduous two-hour bus ride from South L.A. to the nearest Whole Foods supermarket in her quest for better quality and variety of fresh produce. The videos have screened at L.A. City Hall and around the country and are also available 24/7 at Market Makeovers

Atlantic Philanthropies also believes in storytelling as a way of changing traditional power structures.  In Northern Ireland, they are supporting “arts organising” to elevate the voices of older people who, as in many places, are seen as objects of services and consumers of benefits - people to whom things are done – rather than vital and individual citizens. Atlantic supported Big Telly, the longest established professional theatre company in Northern Ireland, to produce a theatre programme that makes older people’s power evident and visible. In residential homes, day-care centres, and older people’s homes throughout Northern Ireland, Big Telly's "Spring Chickens" initiative began as a series of workshops and culminated in five simultaneous, live performances by over 500 older people in venues across Northern Ireland. The performances, each of which was scripted and produced by older people, addressed issues of importance to the community and were aimed at influencing policy.

Big Telly Theater Company


These are just two examples of what appears to be a very positive change in how philanthropy approaches evaluation.  Rather than using “professional”, third party experts, storytelling focuses on what is meaningful to the local community while simultaneously building capacity that can endure beyond the grant period.