Communicating for Social Impact: Lessons from the Gates Foundation and Google Creative Labs
Recently, I interviewed Tom Scott, Director of Global Brand and Innovation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Aaron Koblin, Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at Google Creative Lab, on Grand Challenges Explorations: Aid is Working. Tell the World—a competition to find groundbreaking ways to share stories of aid working well. Anyone can submit an idea, and up to ten participants will be awarded $100,000 toward developing their idea, and the chance to be mentored by the Cannes Chimera, the Grand Prix Winners from Cannes Lions 2011. Successful projects will then have the chance to seek additional funding up to $1 million to bring their idea to fruition. The deadline for submissions is May 15th.
In our joint interview, we discussed the motivation behind the competition, challenges and opportunities around communicating solutions and social impact, the landscape of what’s worked and what hasn’t, the role of digital technologies in enabling new, innovative and engaging communication campaigns, and much more.
Rahim Kanani: To give our readers the context in which this challenge is taking place, how did the Gates Foundation come to the conclusion that communications around the success and impact of foreign aid was inefficient and undervalued?
Tom Scott: Development aid is critical to the success of our global work. We are just a small part of working toward some really big, complex challenges and their success is ultimately dependent on both donor countries maintaining their commitments to development assistance and recipient countries being the main driver of the solution. However, in difficult economic times, tough choices need to be made as governments try to balance different trade-offs.
At the end of last year we did a research study to really look at perceptions around aid. What we found confirmed many things we already knew but also highlighted some challenges. First, most people really understood and supported the “why” of aid, meaning, the moral argument that doing things to help others is a good idea. But the “what” and “how” of aid – what are the programs, why are they important and how do they work – was largely lost. What’s more, there was a feeling that success stories were largely missing and the only real things to break through were examples of aid not working. So it was clear that the narrative around its success and impact needed to change. There are a lot of different ways to approach this and that is what makes the Grand Challenges Explorations idea so compelling.
Rahim Kanani: Aaron, as you think about unique and innovative communication strategies, at Google or otherwise, what comes to your mind as some of the most effective ways to persuade others to think differently?
Aaron Koblin: My work is focused on using data to tell stories and explore our common humanity. I’m interested in ways that digital interfaces can be utilized as powerful narrative devices, and to engage people in new and exciting ways. This comes in the form of generating custom data sets that tell amazing stories, or searching and applying massive data sets to people’s unique personal stories. For example, Chris Milk and I collaborated with Arcade Fire on a project called The Wilderness Downtown. By drawing on data from Google Maps and Street View we integrated visuals of the viewer’s childhood home into the narrative, creating a unique, emotional experience. Spread across multiple browser windows that opened and closed as the experience progressed, The Wilderness Downtown redraws our understanding of how the web (and the music video) can make us feel. That’s what we have to get at: reaching people at a deeper and more engaged level in order to connect them with a subject. It’s better to create an experience rather than trying to tell them to just think differently. It’s because of that project that I’m on the Cannes Chimera today, the judging and mentoring panel set up by the Cannes Lions for the aid Grand Challenge.
Rahim Kanani: Looking at the landscape today at the intersection of communication and social change, what’s worked and what hasn’t?
Aaron Koblin: What’s clear – and exciting – is that communication for social change is growing. You only have to look at the upsurge in interest around TED and the increasing convergence of technology and social good that you see in new channels like GOOD, Mashable Social Good Summit, and others. In the advertising world, the Cannes Lions have been honoring the growing number of collaborations between agencies and charities with their ‘Grand Prix for Good’, and TED has created ‘Ads Worth Spreading’. So there’s definitely an upsurge in interest for channeling creativity into socially-useful ends. It’s about time in my opinion.
The partnership between the Gates Foundation and the Cannes Lions to find new ways to tell the stories of foreign aid is indicative of this trend. The new communications platforms are already increasingly being used by the international development crowd. They’ve propelled visionary people into the spotlight, like Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who has been able to engage large numbers of people with statistics about world poverty in surprising, fun, and compelling new ways. Clicktivism has become commonplace, with groups like Avaaz, Change.org and ONE engaging with millions of people around the world on global issues. Now there’s great potential for taking this collective engagement to new global levels of interactivity.
Tom Scott: Indeed, what’s so exciting is that the landscape of how to communicate is changing almost daily. The barriers to entry to share information and engage with audiences are largely non-existent. There are so many tools, platforms and ways to get people involved. At the same time, there is so much competing for people’s attention that many core principles of how to communicate are more important than ever. You have to be authentic. You have to tell memorable stories. And you have to find a balance between making an emotional connection and using rational facts. I think you are seeing some real successes with organizations like Charity Water or Hans Rosling’s Gapminder as just mentioned by Aaron.
Aaron Koblin: Working on the Johnny Cash Project proved to me the potential for what can be done when people all over the world channel their creativity into a subject they love. For that project, we collected thousands of beautiful hand drawn images of Johnny Cash by fans from Canada to Croatia. The images are constantly being incorporated into a video for Cash’s song “Ain’t No Grave” – a collective tribute to the man and his work that continues to grow and evolve. There are clear ways that we can engage people to work together for things they are passionate about. With the rise of the smartphone in regions like Africa, there’s no reason why the people in countries affected by poverty shouldn’t start to take part in these global conversations. I believe technology will be a game changer here.
Rahim Kanani: Why is the social sector not very adept at communicating progress?
Aaron Koblin: The trouble with progress is that it tends to happen slowly and quietly. It’s not necessarily going to shout about itself, or make the nightly news like a disaster or a scandal would. Nowadays we have an unprecedented opportunity to tell those inspiring stories by other means. It’s about giving people the ability to tell their own stories, not waiting for a news editor to decide what stories we should hear about. And there are new platforms for celebrating progress, institutions like TED where recognition is given to people like Larry Brilliant who played a huge role in the eradication of smallpox. Still this story is relatively unknown compared to Britney’s latest appearance on The X Factor, but this could change, and I think we can help.
Tom Scott: These are really complex and difficult issues. There is no right way to make the connection. There have been a lot of studies and much discussion about what actually prompts people to care and then, ultimately, act on an issue or cause. For the longest time these big global challenges were talked about on a macro level, where statistics and big numbers were used to show the scale of the challenge. But then it became clear that people can really get their heads around these issues if you take it to a more real and tangible level. Nick Kristof wrote a great piece about this a couple of years ago inOutside Magazine where he said the positive responses to his stories came when they were about an individual overcoming a challenge.
Now, as technology continues to evolve and be such a critical tool in communicating, there are some ideas that are starting to emerge. For instance, more and more, people want to see the impact of their own involvement or contribution to a particular cause. So you are seeing organizations connect back how a person’s individual involvement had an impact on a specific family or village. Again, the change in tools is making it much more accessible for the social sector to tell compelling stories and connect in new and different ways.
Aaron Koblin: From what I can see, most non-profits are poorly branded and quite bad at communication. I think this is largely because the causes often seem so grave and important and there appears to be ‘so much more to do’ that they approach communications with little creativity, and a huge dose of preachy heavy-handedness – something much of society has developed a thick skin towards. I believe we need more transparency, and very clear explanations of action and process, as well as a bit of excitement, optimism, and engagement. Not just passing the basket, but inclusion in something bigger, and digital technology can make these aspirations observable, quantifiable, and shareable.
Rahim Kanani: For the first time, the Gates Foundation has funded a communications idea as part of their wider Grand Challenges Explorations programme that seed-funds innovations in global health. How did Gates decide to partner with the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity and should there be more cross-sector learning’s from other industries as we think about story-telling and communicating for change?
Tom Scott: Grand Challenges Explorations is such an exciting program. It was created to tap into the ingenuity and ideas of people who are looking to solve really complex problems. The intent is to have a platform that is easy to access – you fill out a form with your idea, it gets reviewed quickly, and if the concept has the potential to address the challenge we have put out to the world, you get $100,000 in initial funding. It has always been used to address our global health and global development challenges. But we thought there was potential to use a really successful program against a communications challenge – “Aid is working. Tell the world.” The partnership with Cannes Lions is really exciting. They represent the global creative community – the best minds in the world developing creative ideas. Grand Challenges Explorations is only as successful as the ideas that are submitted. With the aid effectiveness challenge, we knew we needed to reach a completely different audience in order to get the word out. And it needed to be a global audience. Cannes Lions is a tremendous partner to share that message.
What’s really exciting about this challenge is that anyone can have an idea and submit it. We fully expect to get ideas across multiple disciplines, from technology and platforms to movement building to new ways to engage with audiences. Without question we can learn from others and hope to apply ideas from completely different sectors against this challenge.
Rahim Kanani: Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon for the Gates Foundation?
Tom Scott: Innovation is critical to the many issues we work on as a foundation – it’s one of our core values. We want to be catalytic in our work in order to help spark new ways to solve really difficult problems. We certainly can’t do it alone and know that our programmatic outcomes are tied to the ability of our many partners to do what they do best in the communities they serve. We’ve been talking about the Grand Challenges Explorations program, which I think is one of the most exciting innovation programs we run. We will continue to look at challenges that address critical needs and look forward to seeing the kinds of world-changing ideas we know are out there.
At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tom Scott helps define and shape the foundation’s identity and reputation through new communication efforts that help advance the goals of the organization. As Director of Global Brand & Innovation, he leads a team that uses research and insight generation to find, create and tell stories that have maximum impact. He also manages a media partnership grantmaking portfolio.
Aaron Koblin is an American digital media artist best known for his innovative uses of data visualization and crowdsourcing. He is currently Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at Google Creative Lab in San Francisco, California. His projects have been shown at international festivals including Ars Electronica, OFFF, GAFFTA (San Francisco), the Japan Media Arts Festival, TED, and are part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 2006, he received the National Science Foundation’s first place award for science visualization. In 2009, he was named to Creativity Magazine’s Creativity 50, in 2010 he was one of Esquire Magazine’s Best and Brightest, and in 2011 was one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30.