Storytelling to understand the needs of ebola victims and war victims

When you think of storytelling, I’m guessing that your first thoughts are more about the emotional potency of stories to enrich our lives and expand our awareness, and less about about rigor. But over the years GlobalGiving has developed an approach to storytelling that allows organizations to map much more of the complexity of any social problem or conflict than they could do with surveys and old-school evaluations.

A crux of our approach is to get organizations to embed people in communities and teach them how to listen. A “listening project” can be focused on any issue, so long as the question is open-ended, and it is the storyteller deciding what to share, not us. All of these stories are fed into a global collection where patterns emerge out of the sheer volume.

This is the best of both worlds: Humans engaging with each other yields deeper insights, while computers mining the narratives yields the hidden patterns that matter, and statically speaking, are the real story. Stories are anecdotes, but collections of anecdotes yield “meta stories” about peoples, incidents, issues, and conflicts.

Security forces control a checkpoint outside the Ebola quarantine area of West Point as relatives carry food and essentials for their family members, in Monrovia

The story behind Ebola headlines

Take the current ebola epidemic. I’ve been mining blogs for the past two weeks in search of the rare authentic first hand report from West Africa, and reposting them at It’s quite clear that for ebola survivors, social stigma is the number one issue they care about:

“The Lagos State government sent health professionals to check on me regularly to know how I was doing or if I had the signs of the virus manifesting. The officials created scenes with their visits. I was embarrassed and I was stigmatized…. It got to a point vendors stopped selling things to me, because of stigma.” – Dennis Akagha


Outside the hospital, they continue to face stigma. Some of Ms. Sellu’s staff spoke of husbands abandoning them and neighbors shunning them. One nurse told of returning home to find her belongings in suitcases on the sidewalk, and her spouse warning her to stay away. Another nurse, seeking lodgings, lied to the landlord, telling him she was a student.

“If you meet with them, they will balance this way and that not to touch you,” said Veronica Tucker, a nurse who survived an Ebola infection, doing a little jig to demonstrate her experience on the streets of Kenema.


But I only have three stories mentioning stigma so far (out of a dozen blog posts), so how would I make quantitative predictions and design a good social-stigma fighting programme? Let’s face it folks, this the 21st century. If you’re not working with quantitative predictions, you’re not innovating; you’re a dinosaur.

Using our current collection of 60,000 stories as a benchmark, the storytelling method and tools returns 120 stories that mention “HIV” and “stigma” – a pretty good proxy group for designing a solution to the impending problem of “ebola survivor” and “stigma.” The meta-narrative comes in many forms. Visually, I prefer to read a wordtree map of these stories before digging into specifics:

There are many aspects to the problem in that chart. So I reran it ( with all stories split into blue or red, depending on whether the outcome of the story was positive or negative, respectively:

Here some themes emerge. A submovement called “living positively” seems to be yielding some positive stories about people living with HIV. Also, counseling and taking care of people helps. In Dennis’s ebola story, the worst thing the Nigerian government did (or failed to do) that augmented his stigma was, in his words:

“It took them two straight weeks to visit my home and to disinfect it.” – Dennis Akagha

With just a few minutes of searching, I have a ton of useful leads and at least one behavior change framework to research (“living positively” movement). But I’m not done. This is a form of “iterative learning.” I reinserted my assumptions back into the story search ( and compared hiv stigma stories with those that also meantion counseling, or talk or listening. To my surprise, stories with these elements are successful for men but not for women, and they are not associated with this “living positively” approach:


Understanding “stigma” is an issue that keeps coming up. Maybe it’s time for funders to mine stories to understand what they ought to be prioritizing?

Getting our partner organizations to try this more potent but very different approach has been a journey. One of them has shared her own insights about it on a blog:

Over the past three years storytelling has become central to most of what I do. I never paid too much attention to it before, but since first coming to Bosnia I have begun to purposely acknowledge how both myself and others around me used it. I had positive experiences: listening to inspirational stories that in one way or another changed my life and the path I followed, and negative (but constructive) experiences: witnessing hopelessness, trauma, anxiety, anger, disillusionment.

Basically Globalgiving does not only provide you with the basic tools that any other fundraising website would, they also put a lot of time into training community based organisations. A new, easy to use analysis tool was developed and all the stories now make up a huge database. Organisations can input their stories, analyse and improve their programmes according to findings from the analysis. This led to a new model to be adopted by globalgiving: listen, act, learn.

Last night I got a tip from a globalgiving staff member, used it, and got a great reaction from a volunteer I trained, which was very rewarding. I met some volunteers from another local organisation which has a soup kitchen and a hostel for people in need of food and shelter. Once I witnessed a violent scene with a homeless person who was very drunk. I asked people what was happening and they said he was an alcoholic who lost his whole family during the war, developed an alcohol addiction and lost everything. The locals I was with said that no one pays attention to him, and ignore him completely. It is a memory that really stuck with me. As a peacebuilding organisation that focuses mostly on youth, we don’t usually have access to people in such situations, and I think it would be good for us to document their stories. So we did.

It was heart-breaking when people who are some of the most disadvantaged in the community had their houses completely destroyed, and now, once again they are left with nothing. First their families were killed in the war, and now, just when they managed to rebuild their homes and move on, the catastrophic floods occurred, and they lost everything again. There were many organisations people mentioned helped them. One person in particular really moved us by saying how grateful he was to us personally and to CIM for recording their stories and telling the world what conditions they have to live in. Indirectly, the lack of services, the poor economy, and most of these problems that people face are a direct result of the conflict, and poor political decision-making and cooperation at the national level. Whilst we try to overcome these obstacles and do our best to have programmes that address the issue of national and grassroots reconciliation, I am also thankful to Fenix and all other organisations in the local community who deal with the consequences of the political and economic situation in Bosnia.

Adelina’s story captures both the promises and the woes of embracing the complexity of really listening. We may find that we are small against problems so big, but at least we can feel the edges of the monster and work together to overcome it – the way charity work has to be done going forward.

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