How Oxfam engages readers with digital storytelling

Oxfam America blog

Oxfam America’s content focuses more on people than problems. Anna Kramer asks of her own ideas: “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?”

For-profit companies like HSBC are using digital journalism to engage and inform current and potential customers. But they aren’t the only ones. Nonprofit organizations—who’ve long used storytelling to tug at the heartstrings of current and potential donors—are increasingly publishing online content designed to build awareness and spark conversations about their mission.

With an 11-person creative team working out of its Boston and Washington, D.C. offices, Oxfam America exemplifies this trend toward using content to build community. The four decades-old nonprofit recently rebranded its magazine, which goes out to 250,000 donors three times a year, as Oxfam Closeup, re-emphasizing its focus on narrative storytelling through photography and words.

The organization also has a robust website and publishes two blogs: The Politics of Poverty, which focuses on the organization’s policy work out of Washington, D.C. and First Person, which puts a human face on the issues the organization addresses, among them workers’ rights, disaster relief, food security and microfinance. (The organization has had a blog since 2008 but created two separate blogs in late 2011 as its audience goals evolved.)

Oxfam America: play up dignity, not poverty

Some organizations working in developing nations use their communications materials to play up the challenges of the people it serves and the direness of their lives. But according to Anna Kramer, who edits the First Person blog and contributes to the magazine, Oxfam America avoids that strategy.

“The way we approach poverty and hunger issues, we’re trying to portray people with dignity,” she says. “We don’t portray people as victims. We bring out the agency of people.” Not only do Oxfam America writers follow this tenet but when the organization hires freelance photographers in the countries it serves, it also looks for those who can capture the dignity of the people they photograph.

Kramer and Oxfam’s other writers travel on occasion to the communities the organization serves to collect stories from the trenches. Last year, Kramer spent three weeks visiting rural communities in Peru.

“We go just to gather content and then when we get back, we figure out how to use it,” she explains. “It may turn them in a magazine story, maybe short a video, but we work closely with Oxfam’s offices in those areas.” Using material collected with pen and paper on her Peru trip (and with translation help from someone at their local partner organization), Kramer penned a 2,000+-word story about women earning a living by cultivating traditional crops. She posted a shorter version of the Peru story on the First Person blog.

Seed of a viral idea: everyone can relate to groceries

Earlier this year, Kramer compiled a post for First Person comparing what seven families eat in different parts of the world over the course of one week. Since late January, the post received over 38,000 shares, including 6,500 Facebook likes and 4,000 tweets. Oxfam Great Britain had commissioned the photos using its community contacts around the world, so Kramer pulled seven of them from their shared photo database and wrote an introduction to frame the piece.

Kramer says she was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the post took off on social media and attributes it to the popularity of listicles and the quality of the photos.

“There’s an everyday quality to these photos,” she says. “Everyone can relate to this idea of how much food you buy, but these people in different countries have a very different experience with food, so there’s a difference but also a relatability.”

Other recent posts tie in with the organization’s work raising awareness around the inequalities facing female cocoa growers. The organization redesigned several iconic candy bars urging chocolate companies to create fairer policies for women growers. Kramer posted an explanation of the campaign along with shareable images of the candy wrappers on the blog, while another blog contributor created a roundup of the worst chocolate ads targeting women. One of the candy bar graphics posted on Facebook has gotten over 4,500 likes.

In brainstorming post ideas for the blog, Kramer says she asks herself, “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?” She says that has helped her focus not on “pushing out our content to people, but engaging with people on something that’s interesting to them. We want to engage with people instead of just telling them.”

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.