The Power of Social Impact Reporting

A child plays at Jogi IDP camp, located near the Khairkhana hill in Kabul on December 9, 2021. More than 8 million people are on the brink of famine in Afghanistan as drought, conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic cause a catastrophic rise in hunger. Ghulam Reza Nazari / Disasters Emergency Committee / Arete

Arete, the expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations, specialise in high-quality content gathering.

Storytelling is one of the most effective communication tools. Impact stories put a name or a face to an organisation, realising its mission and providing insight into the lives or communities they are helping. Successful social impact storytelling can inspire people to act and bring about positive change.

Reporting back is a key part of every charity and NGO’s relationship with the public, their stakeholders, partners, and supporters. Arete’s work with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is an example of how appeal reporting works in practice. The DEC has played a leading role in responding to the war in Ukraine — with its appeal now totalling over £300 million.

With the crisis in Ukraine, media attention is focused on the dramatic events of the unfolding conflict, its escalation, political commentary, and the response of aid workers. Therefore, it is vitally important that charities report success stories through first-hand accounts, photographs, and videos, like the content collated for the DEC below:

It is easy to forget that before the invasion of Ukraine came into the spotlight, aid for the crisis in Afghanistan was the focus of attention, and the DEC had raised over £30 million (as of February) in its Afghanistan appeal. It is unfortunate that the DEC is in such demand. However, their success rides on their reputation for swift humanitarian response, demonstrated through quality impact reporting.

Reporting back is vital because, with an overwhelming number of negative reports coming from crisis areas and no positive impact stories to counteract them, confidence can dwindle, as supporters lose faith that they can make a difference. This is particularly relevant in a long-term humanitarian situation like Afghanistan, where supporters can suffer fatigue due to what appears to be a lack of progress. It is key to portray a balanced view; showing that as well as success stories, there is also a lot more work to be done.

Labourers carry wheat flour to trucks at a WFP warehouse that manages logistics for Afghanistan response, December 2021. Persistent malnutrition, high vulnerability to natural disasters, the effects of climate change and declining smallholder production are some of the challenges experienced by local communities. Saiyna Bashir / WFP /Arete

The challenge when reporting back is to present this balanced view with transparency and authenticity while keeping content as engaging as possible for your intended audience. If your content comes across as sensationalised, or viewers and readers detect any air of exaggeration they will begin to question reports. Equally, if they detect too much authorship in the content — e.g. your video is too stylised, or written content is opinionated, supporters are likely to distrust or doubt what they are being told.

It takes experience to judge the right tone of reporting for your audience, and high-level technical skills from quality photographers, journalists, and videographers to convey this sense of authenticity and integrity with robust and substantive information that is as engaging as possible. While shoddy creative materials will stand out, creating emotional distance and disengagement, the best technical input will mean that any sense of overt authorship fades into the background — allowing stories and the individuals in them to take centre stage.

Halima receives a food package from Christian Aid in Herat, Afghanistan. The Disasters Emergency Committee are working in partnership with the NGO Christian Aid to deliver lifesaving aid to people in need. Osman Khayyam / Disasters Emergency Committee / Arete

“Photography is one of the most powerful means of communication. Photographs provide whole, intuitive, immediate understanding. Through an image the wider perspective and the individual details can be taken in all at once. A picture can capture the core message, connect us to the story and enable us to empathise with the subject in an instant, within the context of the bigger picture.”

Julia Fairrie, Communications Specialist

A refugee from Burundi holds up some dried corn that makes up part of her food aid at a WFP distribution site in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda, Nov 12, 2019. Kate Holt / Opportunity International UK / Arete

Using Statistics

Collecting key data and statistics is going to be important for your organisation’s operations as well as for reporting. Understanding what worked and what didn’t is vital in order to build a framework that can be used in future emergencies, and having clear objectives and parameters upon which to judge the extent of your success is key to this. If you have collected a large amount of data, that’s great, but when it comes to reporting back it is all about understanding your audience when deciding how much to include and how to present it.

Corporate fundraisers may have requested a long-form, matter of fact report, with absolutely everything documented — and it’s very important to honour relationships by delivering to their expectations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do everything in your power to present statistics in the most engaging form possible — they will also thank you for as many visual aids and representations as possible, rather than 100 pages of dense text. Most of the time you will want to use statistics sparingly, weaving them in with other forms of content to make information digestible and to have a lasting impact on viewers/readers.

Putting People At The Heart Of The Story

At Arete, we aim to give people a voice to tell their own stories. Real stories connect with our emotions and inspire us. The video below, produced by Arete for the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, is a great example of how we do this, blending in some statistics on the wider impact of projects.

The power of Istaahil’s story outweighs anything that can be written by a third party, and the format and atmosphere of the video allow it to have an emotional effect on the viewer. Representatives of the WFP provide context on how the project was undertaken, but the authenticity of Istaahil’s smile comes through over and above anything else — ultimately beneficiaries are the only people who can provide a clear and unequivocal endorsement of positive impact, as Istaahil does when she says:

With their support, we improved our farming, and thanks to Allah we are harvesting crops.

While statistics illustrate the scale of positive impacts, only individuals can communicate what those changes mean to them as people.

“There’s nothing like putting something in the first person, and that person telling us about what their experience has been. Because it cannot be questioned. And that’s why when you are running a fundraising campaign, that ability to go into the field, to find the people that the fundraising has impacted, you need to find that voice.”

- Kate Holt, Photojournalist & Founder of Arete

35-year-old Benesh, in Herat, Afghanistan. The Disasters Emergency Committee are working in partnership with the NGO Christian Aid to deliver lifesaving aid to people in need. Osman Khayyam / Disasters Emergency Committee / Arete

‘I have suffered, and had a hard life. This food assistance helps to keep my family alive’

- Benesh, pictured above

There may also be unexpected positive impacts that come through in interviews and testimonials that could be overlooked by statistical reporting and second-hand accounts, such as how projects are affecting wider generations or neighbouring communities.

Zooming In and Zooming Out

The WFP/FAO video above is also a good example of the effectiveness of starting with the human interest story, then zooming out to the wider context of the project, before zooming back into the human interest story to conclude. This formula is highly effective in most cases but is especially helpful to employ when the statistics actually show that the wider situation is worsening, rather than improving.

Zainabu, a 34-year-old women’s refugee leader who has recently arrived from Burundi, poses for a photo with one of her three children, in Nakivale Refugee Camp Isingoro District, Uganda, in 2019. Kate Holt / Opportunity International UK / Arete

If there is more work to be done and the statistics make for difficult reading, one way to combat readers’ tendencies to feel hopeless is to remind them that making a difference in an individual’s life is still significant. Individual success stories provoke positive feelings of achievement, which will almost always make viewers/readers seek that feeling again. Zooming out, in turn, places the individual story in its wider context, which can move people to further action or highlight new areas for future involvement.

“I think that’s really at the heart of what reporting back is about. Closing that loop. And that’s what we aim to do at Arete, we help clients close that loop”

- Kate Holt, Photojournalist & Founder of Arete

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