What’s your story? A guide to finding and using case studies
Case studies. They sound dull, don’t they? Dry and factual – something a doctor might use to describe a patient they’re treating. But here’s a secret: case studies are really just stories, and if you use them well, they are your key to raising the profile and reputation of your charity amongst every single one of your audiences.
A recent report published by the Charity Commission revealed that public trust in the charity sector is at an all-time low, due in part to a lack of public knowledge about the impact that charities have in the areas in which they work.
It’s easy to blame the public for this lack of understanding – after all, as a charity you strive for transparency, with all your income and spending recorded diligently in your annual report. But are you really showing your impact? Perhaps not – and you’re not alone. It’s a common problem amongst charities: when describing what they do, they focus on either the resources they have spent doing their work (their inputs) or their the actual work they have done (their outputs), rather than what has changed as a result of their work (their impact).
While some of your audiences will demand to see quantitative evaluation of your impact (anyone who’s ever filled in a grant funding application form will know the value of cold, hard data), for many, a well-told story can be an equally effective way of showing the difference that your charity makes. A story can help you to build a connection with your audience, which is what will ultimately make them engage with your cause – whether that’s by donating money, signing up as a volunteer, or accepting your arguments.
If you’ve never tried producing a case study, or if the only ones you have access to are a handful of out-of-date testimonials gathering virtual dust on your website, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. But by following a few simple steps, you can easily make great storytelling a central part of the way in which your charity demonstrates its impact.
Step 1: Finding your story
You know that your organisation does great work, and that’s what you want your audience to know about. What example sticks in your mind when you talk about your work? Which service users or beneficiaries are you most proud of helping?
If you don’t have an idea to hand, call someone working on the ‘front line’ of your organisation. Those working most closely with your beneficiaries are likely to have a wealth of examples, and can help you to access someone willing to share their experiences. Remember that your staff will have spent a long time building mutually trusting relationships with service users, so take care to explain why you want to use their case study, how you plan on using it and how it will help your cause. Providing they are reassured about your motives, they are likely to be delighted to be able to help.
Step 2: Meet face to face (or at least make a phone call)
We’re all used to email as the first point of contact, and let’s be honest – it’s easier to bash out a few lines of text than to actually arrange a meeting. But you will get a far better insight into your chosen beneficiary’s life if you can talk to them like a human.
If you can’t physically meet up, a phone call is your next best option. Either way, keep in mind that you are asking them to share what is often an intensely personal experience, so be respectful and give them the space to tell you their story in their own words.
It’s a good idea to ask your subject to sign a consent form at this point, to make sure that your interviewee is fully aware of the purpose of the interview and how you plan on using their story.
Step 3: Ask the right questions (and listen!)
All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. As such, you need to leave your meeting with a few key pieces of information:
What was this person’s life like before they became involved with your organisation?
What was their future going to look like at that point?
What happened to bring them into contact with you?
What has your organisation done for them?
How has their life changed as a result of your organisation’s work?
To avoid getting answers that are too short, try to ask open questions. For example, “Tell me about what life was like for you before you found out about the End Homelessness Charity”, is better than “How long were you on the streets?”
Sometimes it’s easier to work backward with these questions – people are generally more comfortable talking about the improvements in their lives than how hard things were in the past. By easing them in gently to the harder questions, you will get a more genuine response. Also try to avoid interrupting or cutting your interviewee off – sometimes an expectant pause can prompt your subject to reflect further, which is often where your most profound quotes will come from.
If you’re planning on writing your case study (rather than filming it), make sure to use a voice recorder during the interview so that you can go back and listen to the answers – this also helps your subject to feel comfortable and listened-to (rather than you frantically scribbling notes as they are talking).
Step 4: Craft your story
Now you’ve got the building blocks of the story, it’s your job to put them together in a compelling format.
Start with a hook – what’s the one part of the interview that really stuck in your mind, or surprised you when you heard it? That’s your opening lines of the case study – the part that will entice your audience to read/watch it.
For example, “Mike knew he had a problem when, halfway through building a garden trellis, he suddenly forgot how to make a right-angle” is a more interesting opening than “Mike was 57 when he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
Then use the answers to your questions to walk the reader/viewer through the story. The ending (how their life has changed as a result of your charity’s work) is as important as the middle (what your charity actually did), as this is the part that really shows your impact.
Step 5: Spread the Word
There are plenty of ways in which you can use the story. On your owned channels (for example your website, printed literature, and annual report) you can use it in full. You can use an abridged version, or even just parts of it, on social media to support your key messages. For example, combined with a strong image, a compelling quote from a case study can be an excellent source of short-form content.
You may also want to offer the story to relevant press contacts, if it’s really good and it fits in with a topical news story. It’s best to discuss this option with journalists before using the story elsewhere, as some media outlets will require a degree of exclusivity.
Finally, always remember that before you put your case study anywhere public, you should ask your beneficiary to check that they are happy with it. Although you will have already got consent at interview stage, never forget that your ultimate responsibility is to protect your service users. After all, it may be just a story to you, but to them, it’s real life.
To find out more about how to use storytelling in your charity’s communications, sign up now to our next one-day training course, Demonstrating Impact in the Third Sector.
This article was written by Liz Bell of Liz Bell Media. It was originally published in Issue 254 of BVSC’s Update Magazine in October 2016.