From pictures to progress: how NGOs create awareness through captivating stories

When there is so much need, how do charities and humanitarian organisations stay afloat? Plan International create partnerships through storytelling.
Two teenagers in a concrete recreational area. The girl is on a skateboard and the boy is a couple of metres away, walking towards her.

Written by Adam Pensotti

Head of Canon Young People Programme, Canon EMEA

Natural disasters, food scarcity, poverty, war, a lack of equal access to education, inequality, disease control… it’s a list with a beginning, but seemingly no end and not a day goes by when we don’t see appeals from organisations and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), asking for our support. It might feature a celebrity patron, appealing on their behalf. But more often than not, it’s heart-wrenching images of people in distress, devastated cities or children crying in hunger and fear. These images remind us of the urgency to donate. They give us a glimpse into circumstances we fear.

These kinds of images are often necessary when funding an emergency response and such campaigns can be very successful in quickly capturing the hearts and minds of donors who are likely to already know of the disaster from media reports. But most charities do not simply spring into existence when the worst happens. There are tens of thousands of charitable and humanitarian organisations across Europe and they operate all year round through the generosity of donors, partners and grant funding. “In an organisation, you can have different impacts. With disaster relief, the impact is in the short term. When you design long-term projects, you bring positive social norm change and also policy change for the local communities,” explains Jochem Roels, Corporate Partnerships and Major Donors Director of Plan International Belgium. “In a disaster setting, of course, people need to survive – not the next year – but the next day.” Urgent need is a powerful incentive to give, but the work of Plan International is also broad reaching. As an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children's rights and equality for girls, they tackle everything from education and child protection to advocacy, access to healthcare and disaster response. It’s essential work and like many charitable organisations there is a requirement to keep income at a steady level to fund their important year-round work.

The silhouette of a pigtailed girl at sunset, beneath a lightly clouded sky and surrounded by trees.

The images taken by the young people in Belgium who participated in Canon’s YPP with Plan International give a glimpse into their day to day lives.

Storytelling plays a valuable part in this, as it can provide a proven formula to motivate emotional connection and investment. Recent research suggests “appeals that combine hope and sadness produce enhanced levels of sympathy, inspiration and donations.” This can be translated into a kind of abridged version of the ‘rags to riches’ story arc, which tells a tale of belief and paints a picture of a better future. The underlying message here is that important progress is being made and is worth supporting. And the use of longer-term storytelling can bring this message to the world in a meaningful way. But whose stories do you tell and what does this look like? For Plan International, this is not just a straightforward communications decision – it’s the result of a responsible, respectful and considerate cultural mindset that reflects the work of the entire organisation.

“We have to combine different approaches and in order to do that, we have to understand the context,” explains Magali Lowies, Head of Youth Engagement at Plan International Belgium. “And we do this by talking to the people we have in-country.” Plan International has both national and country offices, as well as programme units, where local teams support young people on the ground. This means that when Plan International talk about the work they undertake, it’s through actions, words and images that come directly from the place that it’s happening. You won’t ever see a team from Plan International implement an in-country project directly and the organisation is changing its marketing and content creation culture by flying in to countries less and less to capture the story – ideally, it’s all done locally and cooperatively. Often by people who have previously benefited from Plan’s work and now work on the ground as facilitators. This is extremely important from the standpoint of visual storytelling and quality programming, as there is a solid bond of trust between the empowered and the voiceless. This sets the respectful tone in how children, young people and girls are portrayed, which Plan International is known for.

A few dozen people sit in a conference setting, facing a speaker. This is Brussels parliament and there is a Plan International banner under the speaker’s lectern.

“We went to parliament in Brussels to speak about the issues we face with decision makers. We asked them to take action to fight sexual harassment in Brussels.” — Yousri, age 17.

Good examples of this are the projects that Magali works on with the Canon Young People Programme, which have outcomes that are the very definition of powerful visual storytelling. For example, Plan International discovered that teenagers in Brussels were deeply concerned about their personal safety and many had experience of harassment or sexual assault. Canon Ambassadors gave the young people a masterclass in the fundamentals of photography and visual storytelling, then they went out into their city to capture their truth. The images they returned with were breathtaking and Plan International supported the teenagers to turn them into a campaign – one which succeeded in convincing the Brussels Regional Parliament to pass a resolution to tackle sexual harassment. It was a project that took over two years from start to finish, but its impact will be felt long after and the images remain powerful in collectively telling the tale from many young perspectives. The light on this project shines twofold: firstly, it is giving young people the tools to advocate for themselves and create change. Secondly, there are long-term relationships, actions and goals, which together create an even bigger, more powerful story.

When we work together to ignite change, we connect and bond with others. And one of the simplest ways that we achieve this is by sharing our stories. For an organisation the size of Plan International, stories are important to explain their global aims achieved through a local approach. “Our role in Belgium is not about telling people that we are a charity, and we empower young people,” says Magali. “We are all global citizens and what is happening to girls in Uganda, or to the LGBTQ+ community here in Belgium concerns everybody.” This “principle of solidarity”, as Magali calls it, is foundational in the stories they tell and key in demonstrating the impact of Plan International to potential donors and partners. Each image, video, article or social story drives the understanding that Plan facilitate, support and empower children and young people – there is no ‘saviour narrative’ here.

Left: A head and shoulders portrait of Jochem Roels of Plan International. Right: a quote that reads, “We will not show people in devastation, but what we are doing, how we help and the power of youth to take the next step.”

“Authenticity’ is a somewhat overused term these days, but this is essentially why Plan International’s storytelling results in long-term relationships. The commitment to helping the voices of children and young people be heard extends all the way into the structure of the organisation, so the Plan International Belgium Board and General Assembly always includes youth members. “If you want to hear the voice of children within your organisations but you only have adults or experienced people who set the agenda or make decisions, it's strange,” says Magali. “So, we also train youth to become a powerful voice in our local governance too.” This means that right at the very core of what is undertaken are young ideas, opinions and perspectives. This is important on so many levels, but right now it means that Plan International are working side by side with a generation that is more demanding of truth than probably any that has come before them.

This is important in bringing corporate partnerships to the table, as industry seeks to understand what makes this new demographic tick. “This is an advantage for us because organisations now want to work in the long-term and this is what we have done for years,” says Jochem. “We believe in partnerships, we don't work alone, we work together – with different parties, different people, different organisations.” However, this is not the only reason that Jochem feels hopeful for the future. He believes that today’s young people will leave a significant impression on the corporate world and that this in itself will drive progress. “Generation Z is going to change a lot of things. Organisations will have to change their structures and connect differently. They may have to change their views on the world.”

Learn more about Plan International and how it advances children’s rights and equality for girls.

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