Power of Digital Storytelling: A Guide for Nonprofits to Engage Youth to Become Change Agents

Credit: Giving Compass (www.givingcompass.org)
Credit: Giving Compass

A Guest Post BRana Shenawi, Graduate Student, American University, PR Expanded Blog Contest Winner

Just last month on Sept. 24, the United Nations launched a new “Youth 2030” strategy, reflecting the UN’s new commitment to working with and for young people. The strategy aims to empower youth to lead and to recognize their positive contributions as agents of change. This reflects a greater trend among many organizations in promoting youth engagement.

Why youth engagement matters?  

We’ve all heard the saying, “Youth are the leaders of today.” It’s true! Young people are highly engaged in transforming conflict, countering violence and building peace. Youth engagement recognizes young people’s right to participate in decisions that affect them and acknowledges the great skills, strengths, and unique perspectives that they bring to the table. It identifies youth as valued citizens who can create effective and inclusive policies, programs and environments that impact not only them but everyone around them.

Youth engagement through the art of digital storytelling

Digital storytelling has become a key tool for many organizations to engage with their audiences and stakeholders. It is powerful for inspiring action and sharing personal stories of change and impact. The United Nations Foundation (UNF)’s Girl Up campaign, for example, relies heavily on digital platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube videos, and blogs to encourage youth to advocate for health, education, and leadership for girls everywhere. By using digital storytelling, the Girl Up campaign is able to empower young people to become change agents while also arming them with the necessary tools to spread awareness of its causes.

Similarly, many nonprofits today aim to develop relationships with young people and benefit from their creative minds. By involving youth as active partners in making decisions that affect them both now and in the future, it can increase the likelihood that these decisions will be accepted and implemented as part of their everyday lives. Unfortunately, not every nonprofit organization understands how to reach out to youth. You need to think about how and why young people might be interested in your projects. What are the issues that your organization touches on that have the most impact on youth lives? And, what do you want them to do?

As a nonprofit, you need to know how to be a good storyteller because it is a powerful tool to attract volunteers, grow awareness, and motivate young adults to get involved and become agents of social change. Although this blog is tailored to nonprofits, any organization can use these tips for youth engagement.

Here are some storytelling tips that will help your organization empower young adults to create change:

Tip #1: Use the right platform

Social media tools are the perfect avenues to share stories to get instant feedback and promote agency and self-expression among young people. A new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults finds that a majority of Americans use Facebook and YouTube, but younger adults (especially ages 18 to 24) are heavy users of Instagram and Snapchat.

Rana Shenawi, The Power of Digital StorytellingInstagram is a great way to reach youth. Using photos and effective hashtags can help your audience find custom stories, but writing the right caption that tells a story is key! Instead of simply restating what’s already in the photo, try to give your audience some context using the five W’s and one H rule – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How – to create a backstory that helps your audience feel like they are part of it. Here’s a fantastic example of this from the National Geographic that tells a compelling story.

You can create a call-to-action in your Instagram caption to drive more engagement on your posts. For example, you could ask your followers to click the link in your bio, answer a question, tag a friend, participate in a good cause, and more, as a way to encourage them to comment! Of course, you don’t have to include a call-to-action or the 5W’s in every Instagram caption. Another idea is to upload Instagram Stories and save it to “Story Highlights.” You can also use Instagram videos of young volunteers, who can share their stories with others, promote new incentives, or start a new campaign to encourage young people to participate.

Snapchat is another way to keep young adults interested. It allows you to use visual mediums such as videos, photos, texts, and even filters to tell a story about your organization and its projects. With Snapchat, you don’t have to worry about creating perfect photos and videos on your phone, which makes it more authentic and natural. Snapchat is also a great way to tell behind-the-scenes stories and create fresh content for its users. UNICEF’s “Bring Back Our Children Snapchat Campaign” is an excellent example of using Snapchat stories to raise millennial’s awareness of children affected by Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria.

Telling real-time stories on Facebook live, Instagram Stories and Snapchat allows engagement and in-the-moment involvement that can build a sense of connection, inclusion, and trust.

Tip #2: Let youth share their own stories

The best way to increase youth engagement on social media is to motivate young adults to open up about their own experiences. Creating a space for young people to share their stories can inspire them to connect with their own community and be part of the change. By listening to them and showing that their voice matters, it can have a positive impact on young participants and inspire them to become active agents. As a nonprofit, you can use positive incentives, prizes, contests, and leadership development programs to increase youth participation.

Rana Shenawi, Power of Digital Storytelling DoSomething.org is all about empowering young people across the globe to make positive change, both online and off, through campaigns that make an impact in the community. DoSomething.org is a digital platform that helps young adults pick causes they care about and gives them a clear call-to-action. It encourages youth voice and creates community-based movements through a variety of social media platforms including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and more!

Tip #3: Tell other people’s stories

Young people are more likely to relate to a story if they can see, feel, and hear others share their own challenges, struggles, and inspirations. These stories encourage understanding and empathy toward other perspectives. One great example of using emotional storytelling is Humans of New York (HONY). It features street portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City. HONY tells stories of everyday people through photographs, direct quotes, and personal comments and share them on different social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Rana Shenawi, Power of Digital Storytelling What I like the most about HONY is its authenticity! The stories are short, impactful, emotional, visual, and engaging. They are also diverse and range in all categories like: age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender disability, economic status, etc. Thus, everyone could find at least one story that they can relate to.

“These stories themselves are extremely powerful. You can take something that happened in someone’s life that seems very meaningless, and by crafting it into a story, you’ve taken something that is something that can be unexplainably tragic – like the brain cancer in your nine-year-old child – and turned it into something that speaks to people and gives them meaning.”

– Brandon Stanton, the photographer and creator of Humans of New York

In 2014, Stanton partnered with the United Nations to raise awareness of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that address issues like hunger, gender inequality, and environmental sustainability. The project “world tour” captured pictures in 13 countries.

Using only data and facts to engage youth will not work unless these facts are connected to a story. This is significant to any organization where emotions motivate their audience to take action. Think about a compelling storyline from your organization and then create a content plan for generating and publishing them online on a consistent basis. This can motivate young adults to get involved and share their own stories. It’s important to make it easy for them to know how to take the action and to inspire them to share or show the impact of their support on the community.

Ultimately, the simple, yet most important factor to inspire young people to become active agents is not only in sharing their own stories, but also involving them in the decision-making process. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said,

“For many decades, the UN has sought to work for young people. But with Youth 2030, I want the UN to become a leader in working with young people: in understanding their needs, in helping to put their ideas into action, in ensuring their views inform our processes.”

Shenawi_HeadshotRana Shenawi is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service. She has a passion for global media and cultural diplomacy through arts, film, culture, education and international exchange opportunities.

Featured Image: Photo by Arthur Poulin on Unsplash.