Article
January 16, 2015

Nonprofits Can Learn From Group That Trains Storytellers Around the Globe

Paige Stoyer

Think about the news stories you’ve read or heard in the past 24 hours. What are they about? Where do they come from? And who told them?

If you’re anything like the average news reader (myself included), then the answers to those questions are: political wrangling, disaster, poverty, disease, war, fires, animals, and celebrities. Mostly from your own country and a select few others. And mostly by male reporters, including foreign correspondents not from the places they’re writing about.

The work of the Global Press Institute is a reminder that there’s a whole world out there that we’re missing out on. And other organizations in any field have a lot to learn about storytelling from its example.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit gives journalism training to women in developing countries who are underrepresented in the international press—over 150 reporters in 26 countries, and counting. The group then edits and translates their feature stories for publication in its Global Press Journal and syndicates those stories through its Global Press News Service to local outlets in the countries where it operates as well as international news agencies, foundations, and other publishers.

And here’s the thing: The stories are consistently really good.

Just take a peek at what the organization picks as its 14 best news stories of 2014.

Where else are you likely to read about an activist working with widows in Cameroon? Or a traditional healer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or volunteer “clown doctors” in Argentine hospitals? They even gather stories from around the world on themes like body image and mental health.

The reporters get satisfying, living-wage jobs. News outlets get stories to fill their pages. And readers get insight into places they otherwise might not read about.

“We are, by design, operating in a utopian media environment,” says Global Press Institute executive director Cristi Hegranes, who founded the organization nine years ago. “We don’t take advertisers. We don’t set deadlines. We are not part of the 24-hour news cycle.”

At this point, you might fairly be asking, “Well, how do they survive?”

“It’s a virtuous circle,” explains Ms. Hegranes. “We bring in reporters and train them, they produce the news, we sell the news to local and international outlets, and we re-invest that money back into the trainings. It’s sustainable.”

So what can others learn from this model?

Find and focus on your strength. Many news outlets send foreign correspondents to other countries at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more. And while they may be excellent reporters, they may still lack the local knowledge and perspectives that Global Press reporters have.

“You can’t put a strong enough emphasis on the value of local voices,” says Ms. Hegranes.

The notion that local people should tell their own stories is a guiding principle for the organization and a source of its success: They’re generating stories that no one else is, and at low cost.

The same principle applies to other nonprofits, whether or not they’re engaged in journalism. The unique stories only you can tell are a source of strength, whether it’s for fundraising, advocacy, or personal empowerment.

Training is valuable. In some organizations, having people tell stories untrained, unrehearsed, and unmediated is the whole point: They’re looking for raw authenticity.

Other organizations need to tell stories that have been crafted. These stories will be told in fundraising appeals, on videos on their website, or in person to persuade policy makers or voters. Such stories need to be polished, and that requires training and practice.

Global Press Institute trains its reporters in journalism, and editors work with each writer over time. Even for organizations that are not solely in the business of telling stories, such training and support will help them do their work more effectively.

Create a structure to tell and—crucially—disseminate stories. When it comes to storytelling, many organizations operate on the illusion that “if you write it, they will read.”

Not true.

If you want people to lay their eyes and ears on the stories you produce, you must dedicate substantial time and energy to disseminating them.

Global Press Institute consists of the institute that trains journalists, the journal that publishes their stories, and the news service that syndicates them.

Organizations of any sort and scale can learn from its example: Produce high-quality stories, target your audiences, and build relationships with the people who can help you reach those audiences. A good rule of thumb is to spend half your time telling stories and half your time sharing them.

Telling stories can be valuable for all sorts of organizations. But that’s only half the story. Training your storytellers and working to build an audience for those stories is just as important.

The second Wednesday of each month, Paul VanDeCarr will write about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration in this feature via this online form or e-mail Mr. VanDeCarr at paul@workingnarratives.org.

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers and others to “change the story” on the big social justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers,” and is working on a second edition to be released this winter for nonprofits, advocates and storytellers.