Causes Week 2014: Spread the word about good work

Ms Desiree Yang and her father Roland Yang set up Saltsteps, a social supermarket that sells goods rejected by regular supermarkets.
Ms Desiree Yang and her father Roland Yang set up Saltsteps, a social supermarket that sells goods rejected by regular supermarkets.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Skilful use of media can help charities overcome obstacles and expand their reach but many need storytellers to help them get the word out

The next time you come across a story about a samaritan or charity doing good work, share it on social media or tell it to your friends over dinner.

You will be doing this person or group a bigger favour than simply slipping coins into a donation tin can or joining a charity run.

When a young woman came up with an idea in June to source for goods rejected by regular supermarkets to sell them to the needy at hugely discounted rates, she could find only two suppliers after contacting more than 100 companies.

After her story ran in The Straits Times as part of the paper's Causes Week last Thursday, it had more than 2,000 "shares" on Facebook and reached an audience of more than 280,000 people.

Three other suppliers approached her and about 40 individuals, voluntary welfare organisations and companies signed up either to donate, volunteer or join the team.

"I was surprised at how fast the story spread and the attention it got us because people previously didn't know we existed at all," said Ms Desiree Yang, 20, who runs a social enterprise.

Stories can be a powerful tool to improve the well-being of the poor and vulnerable among us, especially if their reach is extended exponentially by each "share" online. Last week, this paper ran a Causes Week series where various individuals and groups, and how they are making a difference through the causes they are passionate about, were featured.

By highlighting these efforts, it is hoped that people will be inspired to contribute, especially during the year-end season of giving.

Year after year, having been involved in this annual project for the third time, I am continually amazed by the role stories can play in mobilising people to take action, either by donating, volunteering, replicating the projects elsewhere or giving other forms of support.

This year, a story on a six-year-old's mission to save the Earth by starting a recycling project in his condominium is inspiring other kids to do the same.

The young boy received requests from the science centre to conduct a talk for other primary school children and from an environmental group to exchange ideas. People wrote in to ask how to start similar projects in their own condominiums.

Some of the impact of these projects may not be easily quantifiable, but others are. Singaporean Julian Tan, 41, who was featured last year for raising funds to build a school in the Philippines to help survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, received about $450,000 in donations after others, including Filipinos, read about his endeavour online and offline.

Beyond Causes Week, this paper has been regularly featuring charities and groups that do good via various columns and platforms. But charities themselves should also try to engage the public about the work they do better, apart from their monthly or quarterly newsletter.

The need to get the word out

THE age-old problems charities have always grappled with - the lack of funds, manpower or expertise - can be addressed, in part, if they know how to get the word out on what they do and the need for it more effectively on a regular basis.

Compelling stories create the emotional resonance and human connection needed to inspire people to take action or spread the word to engage others, thus helping the organisations expand their reach and resources.

A person who shares a story online is not a mere passive consumer of information. When people feel for a story, they tend to come up with their own ideas on how they can help.

A University of London study done by researcher Cat Jones earlier this year which drew data from British and American viewers found that the stronger a viewer's motivation to share a video to help a cause, the stronger his or her impulse to actually go and find out more about it.

A case study showed that this then resulted in the viewers either donating to the cause or helping out in other ways.

Why charities falter

BUT many charities or informal groups, who do good work quietly behind the scenes, still have a long way to go in learning to tell their stories better.

First, many are unaware that the benefits reaped from getting the message out through stories may be on a par to, or even exceed, the outcomes achieved by the actual sweat of their brow in trying to meet the needs of beneficiaries, day in day out. They prefer to spend their time directly helping people instead of updating Facebook profiles or looking for people who are willing to be featured.

"They know that they have to invest time and energy to create the stories and are reluctant to do so because they feel that their limited resources could be better used on the ground doing actual work in helping people," said Ms Eileen Chong, 29, who made it her full-time job to produce documentaries about everyday people doing extraordinary things - called Project Unsung Heroes - so as to inspire people who watch it to chip in.

Second, many organisations lack the resources and expertise to produce good content or use social media effectively, said Ms Rebecca Lim, who heads Our Better World, a digital storytelling initiative of the Singapore International Foundation that tells stories of people doing good in Asia in order to encourage others to contribute.

Ms Chong agrees.

"Many groups have poorly maintained websites, not to mention a non-existent social media footprint," she said.

Take for instance, Friends in Charity, a group spotlighted in this year's Causes Week.

The group of more than 40 volunteers has been doing extremely laudable work of giving out food and cash to the needy every month at several estates islandwide for the last 13 years, yet it has no official website.

Its Facebook page, which has fewer than 460 "likes", is sporadically updated with brief details on when and where to gather if one wishes to volunteer.

Over the last decade, the volunteers would have encountered many stories of people with real needs. If those were fleshed out better, people would feel a sense of urgency to act or know the specific needs they could contribute to.

Third, many shy away from publicity because they feel it is the humble thing to do and trust that their work will speak for itself.

The Causes Week team this year received an e-mail from someone who had an ingenious idea of making use of the window period when construction workers wait for lorries to take them back to their dormitories after a day's work to talk to them and document the stories behind these migrant workers - anything from their fears to their ambitions - on a website.

But the paper could not feature their project because the founders refused to be identified, preferring to stay out of the limelight. The opportunity cost is a missed chance to call out for more people to join them or start something similar elsewhere.

The desire for change may start with one person but significant impact often requires the efforts of a critical mass.

Granted, some charities have the right to remain small and these do not want or need publicity, or even more volunteers.

"There are a few groups that prefer to keep their projects small but well-run rather than be swamped and not know how to cope with people knocking on their doors," said Mr Cayden Woo, a team leader at Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home.

"But for the majority who are always looking for funding or partnerships, they need more support in picking up techniques to reach out to their target audiences," he added.

Middleman advocacy

I RECOGNISE that the most insightful stories often come from people on the ground who have authentic experiences to share but who may not be skilled storytellers.

That is why people such as Our Better World and Project Unsung Heroes are coming in to fill a crucial gap. Their cause is to be the middleman to help other causes tell their stories better.

They have the technical and creative know-how to create well-produced, high-quality content that captures people's imagination and interest.

Having this form of middlemen advocacy is still in its nascent stage in Singapore and elsewhere. Two weeks ago, the Rockefeller Foundation, which operates both within the United States and around the world, launched a portal that connects social impact organisations to a suite of tools and a growing community that can help them leverage on the power of narrative to increase their reach, resources and impact.

But eventually, charities should learn how to tell their own stories themselves. These stories should present material in a way that grabs people's attention and makes them aware of the need, concerned about the cause, and offer ideas or opportunities for people to take action.

Yet care must be taken in these stories to reflect aid recipients as active agents of change, who play a central role in solving their own problems, so as to preserve their dignity.

For a click of a mouse or a riveting anecdote can set off ripples of change that no amount of loose change in donation tin cans can amount to.

jantai@sph.com.sg