Opinion: How community-led stories can enhance development and impact

Article by Co-founder Sarah Mak published on Devex 27 July 2022

Demonstrating the impact of programs is key to retaining funding and maintaining credibility, but gathering evidence of impact is often one of the biggest challenges. The ubiquity of smartphones, however, is changing the way we approach this challenge.

As of 2022, more than 6.5 billion people are estimated to have a smartphone in their pocket. Smartphone ownership is skyrocketing in many of the countries where development practitioners most often work — but what does this mean for how we connect with the communities we seek to benefit?

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the importance of monitoring and evaluation in efforts to accelerate impact. At the same time, it has left program designers struggling to understand, interpret, and act on data. In addition to dealing with new reporting frameworks, geographical constraints and meeting language barriers, many practitioners are still struggling with a lack of cultural understanding.

When sourced ethically and with authenticity, stories can shift policy, drive empathy and increase funding.

Mobile storytelling is an underutilized tool in the quest to illustrate impact, and one that can help navigate many of the above challenges. Being able to listen at scale to the voices of participants has the potential to unearth previously hard-to-reach insights about genuine community needs and the true impact of development programs.

Stories are everywhere, but collecting them in our sector has traditionally been limited and narrow. Moreover, when we do collect stories, who supplies them? And how are they supported to do so? It’s dangerously easy for the process to become extractive.

The power of storytelling has not changed for generations. But now, finally, it’s time to change the balance of power.

A new way to monitor, evaluate, and communicate impact

As a public health practitioner, I was always concerned about the disconnect between research-driven, “best-practice” development policy and the lived experience and daily realities of communities. I often reflect on my time spent working in Solomon Islands’ villages where malaria-preventing bed nets were just as likely to be used to protect a chicken coop for food security, or sold to prop up the slim family budget, as for their intended purpose.

The story on the ground didn't match the funding narrative. Contemplating the disconnect I saw from a career in development, I agreed with my co-founder at Folktale, David Lloyd-Lewis, that funders needed to hear these stories more often and more authentically. David, a filmmaker, and I both felt that the true power of story had been underutilized by the sector.

When sourced ethically and with authenticity, stories can shift policy, drive empathy and increase funding. But storytelling done badly can do more harm than good.

Using Zoom, Folktale team members are waving their hands and supporting the farmers in developing their storytelling skills. Photo by: The World Bank and Kalolaine Fainu

The pandemic made people question some of the more traditional models of telling development stories: film crews flying in and out; storylines often determined at head office before anyone set foot on a plane; and limited opportunity for community members to shape and review their own stories before they were dispatched as “case studies.” In the rush to “create content,” valuable authentic community insights were often lost to the detriment of monitoring and evaluation.

Even in a pre-pandemic world of frequent international travel and observing programs in action, our industry often struggled to integrate community feedback into design and delivery. Focus groups can only incorporate so many people and can only happen so often.

So, we created Folktale, an engagement platform that uses the power of storytelling to help organizations monitor, evaluate, and communicate their impact. It empowers teams to request stories directly from their communities using mobile technology. Community members are invited to contribute videos captured through their phones by following simple and user-friendly templates. The platform automatically edits the clips together to form cohesive stories, which can be analyzed and curated on the platform.

Empowering communities

Organizations and Folktale work in partnership to develop story templates that empower target communities to share their perspectives guided by on-platform structures. As a result, we see people telling stories in their own voice, showcasing the surroundings that matter to them, and having a platform to speak up — providing rich insights to those who manage programs.

A recent example of Folktale’s use underlines why we created this platform. In 2021, the World Bank used Folktale to listen at scale to the needs of health professionals in Mongolia who were working on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. These were voices that a donor would never normally be able to hear, in a context compounded by language and communication barriers. In fact, despite a long history of funding, the donor had never been able to hear directly from these participants. Folktale created new layers of intimacy that allowed the World Bank to procure medical equipment in direct response to their stated needs.

Health workers — doctors, nurses, medical staffers — contributing with their stories for a World Bank-funded project. Photo by: Folktale and the World Bank

In this case, insights were gathered by an in-country World Bank staff member who was trained by Folktale, and empowered others to tell their stories. This allowed time-poor health workers to contribute with guidance, and see the value of sharing their insights quickly and directly.

Folktale works best in settings where development organizations are truly committed to participatory storytelling — listening to the voices of others, rather than trying to shape a content-gathering campaign to match what they want to hear. This shared approach also allows programs to leverage insights simultaneously for communications and evaluation purposes — when a story comes directly from the community, it can offer just as much value to the monitoring and evaluation team as it does to the communications arm.

Plenty of challenges remain — digital literacy, the cost and speed of internet access, and bringing in the voices of those who do not yet have a smartphone. But, as technology developers, we see it as our responsibility to address these challenges through our platform, as far as possible.

We often say at Folktale that “anyone can press record, but it takes commitment and empathy from an interconnected community for great stories to be shared.” As the sector seeks to better measure its impact while simultaneously striving to deepen its localization and empower participating communities, the opportunity to listen and learn through large-scale storytelling has never been greater.

Want to know more?

Speak to one of our team to learn more about how Folktale can help you understand your impact beyond numbers.

We would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of the lands where we live, learn and work and extend our respect to Traditional Custodians whose country we create on, to their Elders, both past, present and emerging. We also celebrate and embrace diversity and strive to take an inter-sectional approach that empowers those around us and is respectful of their lived experience. We endeavour to create an environment that is equitable and  inclusive for everyone we work with and for, where everyone's voice is heard.

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