'Social Impact Storytelling': a brief exploration
An exploration of the support ecosystem.
Firetree Philanthropy engaged in a brief exploration of the ecosystem supporting ‘storytelling for social impact’ in Southeast Asia and Nepal.
This is not a space that Firetree Philanthropy currently works in and the main purpose of this exploration was to learn and document how this space is currently structured, funded and supported.
This is a learning and sharing journey. With the time and resources available, we chose a limited number of stakeholders to engage with; some of them were approached through referrals from Firetree’s wider networks.
Due to COVID-related restrictions, this research was conducted purely online. All resources examined and all conversations were held in English, a further limitation. Hence, this should be taken as a partial snapshot, sharing back anonymised reflections of what we heard - not as an in-depth / academic study - in the hopes that this may be useful for others too.
You can download a full version of the exploration here.
Over the last two decades, several countries in Southeast Asia have shown a consistent trend in the shrinking of civic space, defined as ranging from closed to repressed, to – at best - obstructed.
COVID-19 exacerbated inequalities and exposed failures, and has forcefully pushed the digital to the forefront of life and social impact work.
The square, the public sphere, the space has become increasingly digital, as much as physical - at times, even more so. The work of civil society happens in a continuum between the digital and the physical realm.
The forced digitalization of all aspects of life (from education to smart and remote working, to informing, mobilizing and organising communities) has also highlighted and further sharpened inequalities and divides within societies.
Parallel to the shrinking of the civic space, there also appears to be a fragmentation of the civic space, including the media civic space, articulated into segments, silos, echo chambers, islands, pockets, niches. In the narrative arena, stories compete for attention and legitimacy, and, ultimately, for power.
Narratives are made of stories, and stories are not just words, images, sounds, signs. People make sense of the world with stories. Stories tell the world as it is, or as people perceive it, and allow us to imagine the world as it could be. Stories make sense and create meaning.
And they matter. What stories get told, by who; how, when and where they are accessible, in what languages, in what formats – all this matters.
The mapping explored 6 countries in Southeast Asia and Nepal. We have also included some actors based in Europe, the UK, Australia and the USA because of their significant interests and operations in the region.
While appreciating the many existing organisations and actions supporting the social impact storytelling ecosystem in vital, effective and innovative ways, we opted to focus on gaps and pain points hoping to shed some light on how and where the greatest impact could be achieved by existing or potential actors, including from philanthropy.
We conducted the exploration through desk-based research, stakeholders mapping and power analysis. We also curated 30 conversations with stakeholders who play a significant role in the social impact storytelling space.
Social impact storytelling as we see it
We use ‘storytelling’ as an umbrella term, embracing the production of stories intended for an audience in any format, and aimed at having a social impact – that is, producing and sharing information on issues affecting society at local, national or regional levels, highlighting dynamics around these issues, showcasing virtuous experiences of tackling problems, and telling the stories of the people working to solve these problems in various capacities, especially when they come from the communities affected.
We consider ‘storytellers’ to be any professional and non-professional individuals and organisations, media companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) engaged in storytelling work, in any format, with a focus on social impact.
We define the ‘support system’ as the complex of short and long-term strategies, policies and actions actively supporting storytellers in their work, both directly or indirectly, put in place by individuals, communities, private, public, national and international actors.
We compiled a brief and clearly partial overview of the models of funding and support that surfaced more often during both desk-based research and conversations; for each model we have heard pros and cons from both funders and from recipients.
We then did a similar analysis of the most common models of capacity building, highlighting their most salient features, together with examples and anecdotes from conversations.
This exercise contributed to the identification of the main gaps and pain points in the support ecosystem. We then delved deeper into what were the main challenges experienced by funders in the space, as the lack of adequate financial resources emerged strongly as a key problematic area, and on possible courses of actions.
It matters what stories are being told, who tells them, how they are being shared, in what ways they impact and shape narratives.
This exploration has tried to offer a snapshot of the ecosystem supporting social impact storytelling. It has been especially important for us to listen to different stakeholders – funders, storytellers themselves, civil society organisations, capacity building organisations.
Despite the many limitations we have highlighted throughout, some key trends emerged from this research.
The scarcity of resources – financial, first of all, but also in terms of time and expertise – has often been quoted as one of the main reasons preventing social impact storytelling to reach its full potential. We also heard how the way resources are accessible is key in preventing or reinforcing barriers and echo chambers.
Another important issue that emerged was the need to invest in long-term, strategic work. Storytelling is meaningful per se, but it becomes an even more powerful agent of social change if it happens within an intentional, purposeful vision and strategy, acknowledging complexity.
What seems to emerge strongly is also the need for all stakeholders to engage in greater, wider, deeper conversations, as to better understand each other’s needs, and to elaborate strategies building on common interests and shared goals. Operating in an increasingly fragmented, shrinking space, trust becomes a vital resource to face present and future challenges.
We see this exploration as an act of learning and sharing, and we would love for it to be a ‘live’ piece, so please do feel free to reach out to us with examples, ideas or comments.
1 Civic space broadly defined as freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and association.
2 Bernholz, Lucy. 2021. Philanthropy and digital civil society: blueprint 2021.