How Nonprofits Are Using Instagram To Tell Their Stories In A New Way

Always shy about experimentation, some forward thinking organizations like the Malala Fund are finding ways to engage users on the platform–even if it doesn’t directly lead to more donations.

How Nonprofits Are Using Instagram To Tell Their Stories In A New Way

When it debuted in April, Instagram Stories looked like the photo-sharing app’s riff on Snapchat. The service allows users to mix-and-match photos and short video clips, creating montages that are endlessly customizable with on-screen notes, drawings, or emojis. Viewers must tune-in frequently to be rewarded because each story evaporates within 24-hours of posting.


The tool should have worked great for nonprofits, many of whom depend on photos or short clips to drive home empathy for those who benefit from their services. And it does–sort of–especially because broadcasting live from dangerous, remote or inhospitable places isn’t always practical. But while Instagram has a global community of 600 million monthly users, it likes to keep them contained within their network: Early on, the company didn’t let you link-out from Stories, so steering those moved by the montages to a place where they might learn more or donate was nearly impossible. (Across the service users were limited to one active link, and only in their bio.)

That changed in a big way in November, when Instagram added a feature to Stories that lets verified users create swipe-able pages inside those tales, which can re-direct viewers to outside sites. Cause groups can now share sizzle reels with images that prompt immediate action. “Nonprofits are using this tool to drive direct donations on their own website or through the recently launched Facebook fundraising tools,” says Paull Young, a strategic partnerships manager at Instagram, in an email to Co.Exist.

Experimentation isn’t exactly a strong suit for many charities, who tend to fret about anything that fails might affect donations. Regardless, many are testing out Stories as a way to bring both brand and mission to life. Unicef has shared a gritty documentary-style one about the challenges and importance of delivering aid to refugees. Charity: water did a more upbeat tutorial about–obtusely–how to make fun movie snacks. The point: It was actually promoting an upcoming movie they were showing on Facebook.The Worldwide Tribe, which makes films to humanize world issues, has shared more about who they are behind the camera. And TakePart, the news service with Participant Media, put up “16 in ’16” a compilation about life as a 16-year-old girl in 2016 from around the globe. Doctors Without Borders and the New York Public Library are also on board.

The Malala Fund, which is led by Malala Yousafzai and focuses on improving girls’ access to education in the global south, didn’t test Stories at first, but has decided to try it since the link-out feature was added. The group has been active on Instagram for at least several years—they have over a half million followers—but saw “dismal” click-through rates, says Hannah Orenstein, the fund’s digital manager. That’s changing. Each Stories dispatch now drives more site referrals than similar if differently-structured posts on Facebook or Twitter. More people are viewing Stories than opening their promotional emails.

“We’re testing out different options and kind of playing around with Stories right now,” says McKinley Tretler, a digital associate with Malala Fund. So far, their Stories have included things like a picture of Malala smiling at her iPhone and caption: “Who’s Malala texting?” that swipes through to an inspirational video. Or a picture of a Sara, a beneficiary from Syria that swipes through to her story.

What’s missing in much of this content is “the ask”–that moment where a group directs the viewer to swipe to donate. Technically, it’s doable. The Malala Fund tested one concept and raised $1,000 from it. But despite Instagram making outside navigation available ahead of Giving Tuesday and during the run-up to end of the year giving, most groups, Malala Fund included, aren’t focusing how Stories can help them directly fundraise yet. That echoes the strategy of other leaders in digital engagement, like the Hive, a special initiative of the U.S. Association of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is working to build a strong base of understanding and support–essentially brand trust–before thinking about dollar value.

It’s a new maneuver for charities, even if that sounds a lot like how Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram became successful. The Malala Fund is happy to have expanded the ways they can interact with a younger audience, too, which should ultimately help them stay plugged into the next generation of volunteers, advocates, and potential givers. “I think it really promising,” Orenstein adds. “We are excited that the platform is evolving so that it can be more friendly for nonprofits. It is certainly in the experimental phase for donations but we could see this becoming an integral part of our campaigns in the future.”

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.