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Digital Storytelling for Social Impact

Without question, digital technology has accelerated the tempo of the world’s activity and the pervasiveness of human connections. Many of us are far more connected to stories and information than we have ever been, yet the noise and ubiquity of this digital world makes it harder to surface and share personal stories of change and impact.

Few would deny that storytelling is a powerful tool for inspiring action and change and influencing thought leaders, funders, and decision makers. In the digital era, the shape and delivery of stories has shifted dramatically. Long-form narrative and conventional journalism now share the stage with messages of 140 characters or fewer and images that disappear seconds after they are opened. While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them.

The Foundation recognizes a big opportunity in this intersection of story and technology, and has launched a project to consider the role that digital technology can play in elevating the practice of storytelling as a means to improve the well-being of the poor and vulnerable around the world.

We drew the insights and ideas in this report from interviews and roundtable discussions with thought leaders in entertainment media and news, brand strategy, technology, philanthropy, government, nonprofits, and business. We conducted a technical platform assessment and landscape analysis to evaluate the current state of digital storytelling. We explored the power of narrative and networked communication to expand reach and influence. We also identified unmet supply and demand needs in the field and opportunities for innovation.

We heard from journalists how digital media is introducing new topics into the public dialogue and giving stories longer life cycles than before.

We heard from the entertainment industry about both increased competition and decreased funding for the production of compelling stories about social impact.

We heard from brand strategists about creating an organizational strategy and a culture that empowers every staff member to create and value the role of stories in their work.

We heard from nonprofits and business about the importance of stories coming from the people impacted by the work. Technologists also provided ideas on the best digital tools to capture and share stories with a broader audience.

We heard from government and academia about the significant digital skills gap in social impact organizations and the need for training services and metric-driven examples of storytelling success.

Some of the findings in this report were expected, others surprising, but all can inform action for those working in the social impact space, including the team at the Rockefeller Foundation. Our next step is to workshop the report recommendations with selected cross-sector leaders to produce a game-changing platform, one that exists in multiple places or formats, that easily builds capacity and demand, that is measurable and flexible, that fosters leadership and community, and that ultimately advances humanity.

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