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The Power of Storytelling in Building Public Support

This is the nineteenth in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change.

Jeff-SkollAn Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman,” North Country, Syriana, Food Inc, The Help, The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson’s War. Have you seen any of these films?

Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Jeff Skoll speak at the 2012 Independent Sector Conference in San Francisco as he accepted the John W. Gardner Leadership Award.  His accomplishments—including the creation of Participant Media, the producer of these films—are a reminder of the power of storytelling in building public support.

Jeff was the first full-time employee and first president of eBay, ultimately making him a very wealthy man. In 1999, he founded the Skoll Foundation and in 2004 created Participant Media to harness the power of entertainment to inform and inspire viewers about social issues. For each movie, Participant Media creates specific social action campaigns designed to give people an opportunity to engage on the issues highlighted in the film.

For many of us, our viewing of these films starts out as a simple night out with friends or a partner, some popcorn and soda. However, it goes far beyond this. The stories told in these films touch us—and millions of others—helping us better understand the issues, their relevance to our lives and communities, and our responsibility to take action. As a result, it’s remarkable what each of these stories has done for building public support. Here are a few examples:

  • North Country (released in 2005): North Country tells the story of a woman who encounters harassment from male coworkers in the mines of Northern Minnesota. The social campaign that followed the release of this film activated thousands to show their support of the Violence Against Women Act, which was successfully reauthorized and signed into law in January 2006.
  • An Inconvenient Truth (released in 2006): This film raised awareness of the issue of global warming among an audience of more than a billion people. Prior to the film’s release, polls suggested that less than 30% of Americans believed global warming was a real issue, as compared to after the film’s release when 87% of Americans said it was an issue of real concern. Additionally, more than 15 climate change bills were introduced in Congress, with the historic Markey-Waxman Bill passing the House in June 2009.
  • Food Inc. (released in 2009): This film exposed inadequacies in the US food system and the link to the prevalence of certain diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Following the film, more than 230,000 people signed a petition that was delivered to Congress in support of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which was passed in December 2010.
  • Waiting for “Superman” (released in 2010): This film put a spotlight on the US education system and the need for reform. The film led to more than 2.8 million students supported through classroom donations via the Waiting for “Superman” online community through DonorsChoose.org. As a result, 50,000 letters and petition signatures supporting high standards in public education were sent to local, state and national policymakers.

While we don’t all have the resources to create such films, we all have the ability to tell stories. Stories have the power to transform issues on a global, national, or even community level. Let these films and the actions that followed be a reminder to take the time to capture the stories that will inspire, educate and move people to action on the issues we care about.

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy's full bio

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