The Global Giving Storytelling Project

Evaluating impact is something we're always interested in learning more about. When we heard about the Global Giving Storytelling Project, we were pretty excited about it because it includes talking directly with communities to find out what people say about the impact of community projects on their lives. We asked Marc Maxson to tell us more about the project and why it matters. The Global Giving Storytelling Project By Marc Maxson

For the past few years, GlobalGiving has been working with organizations in East Africa to collect tens of thousands of narratives on any “community effort” people wanted to talk about. What came back was a rich, complex collection of perspectives on aid projects (such as Horn of Africa drought relief), peoples’ unmet needs (such as unpaid school fees), and solutions (one common solution to the “street children” problem is to pay their school fees). And while these narratives are not the whole story, I think they better reflect the opinions of the people than experts do[1]. For the past year I’ve been trying to simplify the process, so that all organizations could use narratives in a process for learning what works:

A map to illustrate how the Global Giving Storytelling Project works

The current online analysis tools allow anyone to lump these stories into collections and construct answers to just about any question. With new insights, an organization can iterate on the project focus and collect more stories, which are then understood in context by benchmarking them against similar stories already in the full collection. We found the best method for story collecting to involve training a group of local people, typically youth, and asking each one to interview about a dozen people they know, and ask each for two stories:

An illustrated process of Global Giving storytelling

Each organization can build a custom questionnaire in five minutes, selecting from a pool of about forty questions. These questions are designed to clarify the fuzzy elements in stories that matter to most community interventions. The questions intersect in many ways:

A Map of the Global Giving Storytelling Project

Go to for more details.


Through this process, organizations have learned…

  • Street children are most likely to run away from single parent homes, especially if one parent has died and then a step parent moves in. But school fees and losing books / uniforms also contribute.
  • Nairobi girls in Kamukunji, Nairobi face sexual predators and assault in a variety of specific situations. This became the focus of an after school program.
  • People are more likely to tell stories with thoughtful, introspective words, and ask “why” when they are younger and 50% less likely to do so as adults.
  • The most common words in Kenya and Uganda were “school fee” and “income,” respectively – pointing to the failure of Kenya’s free primary education mandate.
  • In most stories, women help end child abuse, and girls are twice as likely to be abused as boys.

Why we built it

Most aid projects fail because the way that we work ignores some fundamental aspects of human nature. We usually think our solution is the best solution to the problem. We would rather make our own mistakes than learn from others. And in philanthropy, we’re not even allowed to admit the mistakes we made with other peoples’ money.

The solution is developing a system to help us learn from each other and reward organizations that listen, act, and learn. People who are part of the communities we serve are often “experts” on the programs that affect their own lives. Buried in stories are advice and insight into the nature of the problem, and possible solutions. So GlobalGiving needed a way to track peer learning and foster community feedback, so that we could reward the organizations that do this best. That is how we believe we can change the world.

How can this change the way community-based work is done?

The only way you’ll see how this is different is to try it yourself, and read through a few examples in my next post for Firelight. But if you want a list of advantages…

  • Saves time and money: Should take 5% of one staff person’s time to manage a distributed story collecting process.
  • Learn more, faster: Cycle through possible solutions and learn from other organizations. By sharing what you collect, you get back reasonable benchmarks and statistical error corrections as you explore the data.
  • Get credit for listening: Crazy, huh? Organizations that listen and help add new perspectives into narrative collection will have an easier time convincing funders that they are doing exceptional work. This kind of learning leaves a trail.

Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant at Global Giving.

Stay tuned for more from Marc as we dive into this project a bit deeper. If you leave questions in the comments, we'll try to answer them in Marc's next blog post.