Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared Aug. 8, 2016, on PhilanTopic, the blog of Philanthropy News Digest.
By Neill Coleman | Vice President of Global Communications, Rockefeller Foundation

A well-told story can help people understand an issue in a visceral way, enabling them to feel fear, stress, elation, and other strong emotions as it unfolds. When characters in the HBO drama Treme showed us the courage of New Orleanians struggling to stabilize their lives and rebuild their city after Hurricane Katrina, the importance of resilience and economic inclusion felt less hypothetical—and more like real issues affecting real people.
At the Rockefeller Foundation, we understand the power of stories to influence opinions, change attitudes, and motivate people to work for the good of their communities. In 2014, we deepened our investment in cause-focused storytelling with the launch of Hatch for Good, a suite of tools and resources designed to help social-change organizations share stories that drive social impact.
Of course, no one tells stories better than Hollywood. That’s why we’re supporting AndACTION, a pop culture hub that gives social-change organizations a heads-up on film and TV shows in production related to their causes, allowing them ample time to develop campaigns designed to stimulate discussion and drive action. We’re intrigued by the idea of leveraging popular entertainment to encourage interest in topics like resilience and inclusive economies. And with AndACTION, social-change organizations now have an opportunity to tap into the passions generated by compelling stories delivered via screens large and small and ride the wave of public enthusiasm—because they know ahead of time the wave is coming.
One such organization, Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions working to promote a movement for family-friendly workplace policies, found an intriguing storyline in the primetime show Superstore that illustrated the importance of rethinking corporate policies that hurt families. In an episode titled “Labor —an episode seen by roughly six million Americans—a very pregnant employee who can’t afford to take time off from work goes into labor and has her baby at the store. Although giving birth at work might not be the norm, one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth because they don’t get paid leave. So Family Values @ Work wrote a blog post about the episode to help people understand the importance of paid family leave—and initiated a conversation that enabled it to plug its inclusive-economy message while reaching many more people than it could have through its own resources.
The fact is, organizations need stories if they hope to win hearts and minds. Yet few groups use the many powerful stories that are told on a regular basis on TV or in feature films. AndACTION is helping to bridge that divide. For example, organizations seeking to mobilize public support to address climate change could jump on AndACTION’s website and learn more about Deepwater Horizon, an upcoming disaster film that examines the dangers of deepwater ocean drilling. Or they could read about Leonardo DiCaprio’s upcoming The Sandcastle Empire, a dystopian tale set in 2049 that depicts human society at a breaking point due to climate change, coastal flooding, and overpopulation.
Superstore, Deepwater Horizon, and The Sandcastle Empire are just three examples among many of the kinds of well-crafted shows and film that nonprofits and foundations can leverage to advance their work. And once organizations are made aware of pertinent narratives, AndACTION will work with them to develop relevant campaign materials, virtual and real-world discussion forums, and events tied to the release of the show or film that tap into the buzz around the show or film and drive eyeballs to their action pages.
Getting audiences to engage with an issue is easier if that audience is approached when it is already thinking and talking about the issue. All too often, however, people lack the critical information that a cause-focused organization can provide. When audience energy is combined with timely advice and guidance, good things can happen.
That’s why we’re working with AndACTION, and it’s why we’re supporting, along with Atlantic Philanthropies, the Open Society Foundations, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and others, this innovative strategy. We encourage you to take advantage of AndACTION’s resources and spread the word that help is on the way.
Neill Coleman is vice president of global communications at the Rockefeller Foundation, which seeks to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.
Philanthropy News Digest is a daily news service of the Foundation Center, which curates philanthropy-related articles and features culled from print and electronic media outlets nationwide.
How is your foundation communicating about pressing issues of our time? Let us know. Email MIF Communications Director Nina Sachdev Hoffmann at nina@mediafunders.org.