Using Cloud Technology in Storytelling

Submitted on Wed, 5/14/2014 - 3:48pm
What do storytelling and cloud technology have in common? In Liz Prescott's experience, which she shares here, cloud-based solutions can make the difference between an advocacy victory and a missed opportunity.

What is a story bank anyway? Storytelling is a cornerstone of nonprofit fundraising and public messaging. The ability to identify and tell a compelling story is such an important part of conveying our impact that it has almost reached the level of cliché.

Storybanking, however, takes storytelling one step further. It is a process of identifying and organizing volunteers who are willing to share their own stories in their own words, through interviews with media, testimonies before Congress, or speeches at public events. To do it right, it requires an organizational culture and technical infrastructure to collect and catalogue stories so that the right storyteller can be matched with the right opportunity at the right time.

So what does this have to do with the cloud? To answer that question, let me tell you a story of my own.

I began my career in storybanking at Families USA, a pioneer of the technique. When I got there, the stories were housed in a database that I could only access from the computer in my office, which seemed fine at the time because the story bank was essentially a team of one, and I went in there every day!

The decision to change started as a slow boil. I was keeping an ongoing list of changes I wanted to make to the database – pretty basic things like adding new fields and tracking the different stages a story contact went through before appearing in media – and, alas, some errors started to come up. Unfortunately, the 2005-era technology that was used to build this customized solution was swiftly going out of date.  When we approached the original vendor with these changes, even they seemed to suggest that ongoing maintenance of this database was not worth the money. Sound familiar?

It wasn’t until we received an urgent story request, however, that the need for a cloud-based solution became apparent. This was 2009, a year in which our stories about the need for health reform were in demand. The Administration was organizing town hall meetings across the country to bring the message of health reform to the American people, and they wanted the President to be introduced by local people who desperately needed access to health care. As these things often are, the request for stories was on pretty short notice. I had already gone home for the day when I got the request. We did such a good job finding a story that they called me for another one that weekend, when I was up in Baltimore. Of course, I went into the office to cull through the database! This was exactly the kind of thing our story bank was for.

Eventually, we connected the White House with some great people: Nathan Wilkes, a man in Colorado whose hemophilic son needed millions of dollars worth of treatment that put him at constant risk of hitting the lifetime caps that are now outlawed under the Affordable Care Act; and Lori Hitchcock, a woman in New Hampshire who had a pre-existing condition that haunted her, and whose insurability (or lack thereof) had a dramatic impact on the trajectory of her career. Both of these wonderful people got a chance to meet the President and be a part of something historic that changed their lives and the lives of millions of people like them. I feel pretty good about being a part of that. But I knew that experience didn’t have to be so hard.

As you and your organization weigh the decision to move onto the cloud, consider the following lessons I learned during my experience.

Cloud technology is not just for collaboration

I was only one person! And yet, the availability of the cloud improved the quality and efficiency of my work dramatically. I went from having to go into the office every time (and sometimes missing time-sensitive opportunities) to being able to respond quickly to requests from reporters even when I was away from the office. 

Software as a Service (SaaS) upgrades automatically

Most providers of Software as a Service are constantly making improvements to their systems even when the consumers are not aware of it. Subscribing to a software service is a similar or lower cost than the thousands of dollars we would have had to invest every couple of years to maintain our old database. Moreover, the upgrades are seamless, as opposed to the old model of accumulating enough error messages and tweaks to go back to the vendor for maintenance.

Most cloud services are incredibly flexible

A big improvement for us was the ability to make changes on our own as the need arose. It seemed kind of crazy that we had to go back to the vendor every time we wanted to make a tiny change in the architecture of our database. As many things do, the process of collecting stories and the software needs that go along with it are always growing and changing. If you find software that you are comfortable navigating, you can make a lot of these changes yourself. Find a system that will grow with you!

If you are serious about being a resource for media, elected officials, or any third party that covers the issues you care about, storybanking is a powerful tool. Once reporters learn that you have a whole database of potential interviews, the phone won’t stop ringing. To be that kind of trusted resource, though, you must be able to respond quickly and consistently. Building a story bank database on the cloud is an essential part of building that reliability and, ultimately, getting your message out to your audience. 

About the author:

Liz Prescott is a technology and communications consultant based in Chapel Hill, NC. She works with nonprofits across the country, helping them build the technology and culture of storybanking. Her work has been profiled in The Washington Post and Free Range Thinking as a model for increasing storytelling capacity.