How can charities make case studies work?

  • With so many organisations competing for audience attention, charities need to work harder than ever to stand out
  • Case studies can make the crucial difference in making readers sit up and pay attention
  • In this guest post, Rosie McIntosh of Third Sector Lab shares what she’s learned about using case studies effectively

In an environment where many of us are facing information overload, charities need to work harder than ever to capture and retain audience attention.

Rosie McIntosh of Third Sector Lab shares what she’s learned about using case studies in her work at Oxfam, ENABLE Scotland, the Mental Welfare Commission and Mind Waves, as part of our ongoing series of articles focussing on Scottish charities.

Make the personal connection

Your audiences, whether potential donors, the media or government officials, will connect with real stories about real people (or dogs, here’s looking at you, animal charities). You can include all the facts and figures in the world, but it’s the details of an individual story that touch us at a human level.

Get your stories heard

Storytelling should be at the heart of everything you do. Put stories on the front page of your website, weave them into your publications and use them to reach out on social media. A simple picture and quote from a real person is often more powerful than an in-depth report.

A person is not a case study

Talking about an individual as a “case study” is not only disrespectful, it is unhelpful. We are all unique individuals with our own range of stories to tell and opinions to air. One person does not equate to one case study.

Celebrate the results

Stories are your chance to show the real difference you make to people’s lives; it’s not about listing activities, it’s about showing what changed. Someone attended your training course – so what? They felt more confident – so what? They spoke in public for the first time at their daughter’s wedding – now we’re talking!

Get to the action

Chronological order is rarely the best way to tell a story. Skip straight to the high (or low) point of the story. “I can’t believe I’m walking again” is a more compelling starting point than “I was at work and my legs started to feel numb”.

Get creative about anonymity

It’s always more effective if people are happy to be identified, but it’s not always practical. Unless there’s a safety or legal issue, experiment with semi-anonymous stories. Animation, audio stories or Instagram-style images conjured from the story can be a good way to keep things anonymous. And always use a name, even if it’s a false one.

Support people to tell their own stories

Stories feel more real when they come from the horse’s mouth. Offer blogging training, or consider lending out equipment so people can keep a video diary. Not only is it incredibly empowering for people to share their stories and offer advice, it adds authenticity.

Find a point of resonance

When we hear stories, we look for the things we can personally identify with. What does your audience have in common with the person whose story you’re telling? Even if their lives seem a million miles apart, they could still share a love for their grandchildren, or for Nutella pancakes. Seemingly trivial details can help form meaningful connections.

Logic makes us think, emotion makes us act

Whether you want people to donate, run a marathon or sign a petition, you have to make them feel. It’s tempting to go for the saddest, most dramatic story, but don’t forget about the power of positive feelings. People are more likely to take action when they feel inspired than when they feel depressed or overwhelmed.