1. WaterAid: the story behind The Big Dig

    It’s boring to always talk about yourself, so we also plan on using this blog to shout about other people’s storytelling that has wowed us as we go about our work. First up is WaterAid and the amazing Big Dig campaign. We were really excited about this, which we think is a great example of how organisations can blend professional storytelling with voices from the field.


    For 13 weeks from mid-June until early October last year the Big Dig followed the WaterAid team in Malawi as they brought fresh water to the villages of Kaniche and Bokola. Throughout the summer, supporters watched the story of these villages unfold through the blogs, tweets and pictures posted by field staff, Nathan and Michael.


    Followers of the Big Dig got to know the people living in these villages and experienced in real time the highs and lows of the hard work of the team. The campaign raised £2.5m, exceeding its original target by a massive £1.3m. We caught up with Helen Bailey, WaterAid’s Special Projects Manager, who shared some valuable insights into how the campaign worked and what the organisation learned.


    What was the original motivation for this idea?

    We know that people give to people, so we wanted to find a way to bring our supporters closer to the people their donations are helping and to help them really engage with what we are doing. At the heart of this was a desire to build trust and show them where their money goes, hopefully to build a lifetime of engagement.


    What investment did you have to make in the campaign?

    There were three visits to Malawi. The first was a traditional story gathering trip which identified the community we would focus on and captured all the professional material we needed for the website and warm appeal. The second was to train the field staff in blogging and photography skills and to set them up with smart phones and Instagram accounts. The third was at the end of project when we sent another crew to film the final scenes of the water arriving.


    How did the project put impact on the field teams?

    We established in advance that Malawi Country Programme and the partner organisation had the capacity to handle the work. Michael and Nathan (our partner staff) visited the community twice a week rather than the usual once every two weeks.  A positive and unexpected outcome of continuous storytelling from the field was that the increased presence of Michael and Nathan meant the community quickly built up a trust that we were there to help.  This trust meant they got on board with elements such as latrine building and hygiene education quicker than a community normally would, resulting in faster cultural change in these communities. This is a fantastic learning of how fundraising can impact the success of programme work beyond simply funding it and how investing time to get our partner organisation on board reaped the benefits.


    Did the project require much management from the UK?

    All the updates were sent to us before we uploaded them, but we wanted to maintain the integrity of the voices from the field so the only editing we did was proofing. More time was needed to coordinate use of the material by different teams in London. We didn’t predict how rich the stories would be so as excitement for the campaign grew it became a much larger project to manage.. It was hard work, but everyone was behind the campaign so there was a lot of enthusiasm.


    What did WaterAid learn about storytelling as result of The Big Dig?

    A big learning for us was that people really engaged with positive images, especially at the end of the campaign, which is the opposite to what we sometimes think works. We also used to think that different audiences needed different stories but we now recognise that a strong story can work for any audience. From anecdotal supporter feedback we learnt that opening our projects up and showing a ‘behind the scenes’ approach really does increase supporter trust of WaterAid that their money is being spent effectively, which we hope will have a positive impact for us in the long term. The project has also done wonders for cross-team working and helped break down a lot of barriers. It was especially positive to have the country office so involved. In the past we have sometimes struggled to make connections with field teams but with this campaign they were at the heart of it. What we need to do now is take what we have learned through this one project and scale it up.


    Get in touch if you would like to submit a guest blog or have spotted some amazing storytelling that you think we should feature here.


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