Monday, 30 January 2012
Tales of the unexpected
It’s the beginning of national storytelling week. The harbinger of this news, for me at least, is a message from the Royal Mail, author of that great lost novel The Effective Postal Service.
I’m thankful for the reminder though, because story telling is something of a lost art in the youth charity sector. It’s not that charities don’t know how to tell a good story to promote their cause; it’s just that most have perverted the art by telling the wrong story, with the same stereotypes, the usual suspects. Too many have lost the moral authority to write the future.
Think about: how often do you find a major youth charity trying to talk about what they do and who they work with in terms of the real issues and solutions, instead of the endless list of deficits linked to a character looking vulnerable and huddled under a doorway?
Sometimes is not enough. In the disadvantaged arms race we are in, it seems the more needs and despair you can promote, the better the story. But it doesn’t wash. Look between the lines, through the black and white images, and ask – is this engaging your mind to the issue at stake, or just a knee jerk to suffering? I’d hate to work for – or be represented by – an organisation prepared to talk about me as ‘disadvantaged’ because it thinks this is the best story to attract another 40p in the donate now bucket. There is an urgent story to be told about people in the world who are not in a position to develop their talents – and it requires greater daring and deeper intent than what gets pushed through my letter/email box or pops up on the internet.
The story of providing an immediate safety net for disadvantage too often suffocates the potential for investing in the real advantages that can help build a young person’s future. It’s the story of what we really need to do, and how, which is missing.
I like to think about it in terms of Coffee. We spend around 100 billion dollars a year on coffee, one of the most traded commodities on the planet. However useful coffee is, we don’t actually need it as a resource as much as our planet needs young people. 100 billion dollars is a pot big enough to try to eradicate youth unemployment across the world. Part of the reason why we invest so much in coffee can be found in the advertising – it’s promoted to us as an advantage, something sophisticated, creative, sexy, passionate, vital, alive, holistic, linked to being conscious about the world and connected to others. If charity comms departments applied their talents to advertise coffee, they would suck big time. Don’t young people, then, deserve a little more invention and positive daring from the household charity brands big enough to sell a different story?
So, in the spirit of storytelling week, I ask: where are the storytellers prepared to disrupt the disadvantaged paradigm in the youth charity sector? Hopefully, coming in a poster or internet advert soon, with the positive poetry of new enterprise. Because if the story continues to talk only of disadvantage, it's time for charity to 'diss off'.