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How Cuso International uses technology to share their story

A culture of storytelling is at the heart of our communications work and technology helps makes it possible.

May 27, 2011

By: Tierney Smith

Editor's Note: Cuso International is registered with TechSoup Canada. We are highlighting their work with digital storytelling as part of our "Sharing Your Story" theme for June 2011.

Being able to tell your story is important for every organization, but it’s especially critical when individuals are at the heart of your work. For Cuso International, a civil society development agency that works through volunteers, sharing their story is key to recruiting volunteers, fundraising, educating the public about global issues and keeping past volunteers engaged. At the heart of their approach is a culture of storytelling and a well-developed content strategy.

Cuso International’s approach to development is to build human social capital in developing countries by sending skilled volunteers from North America (and other developing countries) to work on collaborative development projects. At 50 years old they are one of the oldest and largest volunteer-based development organizations and send about 250 volunteers overseas each year to work with local partner groups. Cuso International has around 60 staff in Canada, with 4 public education staff across the country and the rest located at their headquarters in Ottawa.

Cuso International volunteer (centre) is an advisor for the 'Building Nigeria's Response to Climate Change' project. She works on community-based adaptation with communities across Nigeria. Sean Kelly, Head of Communications, explains why storytelling is so important to Cuso International: “We don’t send money overseas, we send people... people are at the centre of our organization and their stories show the human side of development.” This view of the organization is at the heart of their storytelling culture. At a basic level, all staff know the key messages to share about Cuso International, so the organization’s story is told consistently. Beyond that, staff are always on the lookout for good stories in their day-to-day work - storytelling is everyone’s responsibility.

Technology can be a powerful enabler for storytelling, making it possible to share stories through different mediums and share them with a wide audience. At Cuso International, the key channels used for storytelling are podcasts, blogs, video and social media. These technologies are relatively easy to get started with and there are lots of online resources available, including the TechSoup Canada Learning Centre and blog (see below for links to some good resources).

Podcasts: low cost, quick and authentic

Podcasts are a great channel for Cuso International because they’re both easy to create and easy to listen to (since you can play them in the background while doing other tasks), and their podcasts have a strong following. Each of the four public education staff carries a recorder with them and turns it on whenever they are talking with a volunteer or development worker. From there it’s a simple matter of posting the podcast - no editing required. “Not only are podcasts quick and low cost to produce,” explains Sean, “they are immediate, intimate and human.” It’s also easy to get access to the podcasts as they are available for free online, in iTunes and through their iPhone app.

Blogs: stories from the field

Suleman Mapai (l) of the Movement for Defence of Human Rights and the Fundamental Freedoms in Cameroon and Cuso International volunteer Steffen Lajoie plan a workshop on human rights.Blogging is a common way for overseas volunteers to share their experiences with friends and family back home, and Cuso International sees these blogs as a critical piece of the puzzle in their storytelling efforts. There is a list of volunteer blogs on their website and communications staff point to the best ones on Facebook and Twitter. While the organization has its own blog, they find that the volunteer blogs are more popular because they provide an on-the-ground view in the volunteer’s unique voice. Staff encourages the volunteers to share their honest opinions, good and bad, about their experience - they would rather people be open and encourage discussion around the tough issues instead of painting an unrealistic picture.


Video: bringing stories to life

Trailer for 'El Centro', a 3-video series following an innovative youth centre in Peru.Videos are one of the most powerful ways to share the experiences of people in another country, and the also take one of the biggest investments to do well. Cuso International understands this trade-off and focuses their efforts on producing one video series (like a mini TV show) each year. In this year’s ‘El Centro’ series, Sean shot the video footage himself and did an initial edit, then got an outside organization to give it the final polish. Not only did this save money, it also ensured that the right message got across. “We don’t want to make it seem like Canadian volunteers are saving the day by themselves,” says Sean, “because we work in collaboration with local groups. So we did our own work on the video and then hired a group that understood our values.” Their most recent series is posted on their YouTube channel, featured on their website, shared through social media and promoted with bloggers and citizen journalists.

Embracing bilingualism

Mike's empathy and professionalism allowed him to gain the respect from the many youth that come to the CJE, as well as from the municipal authorities that support the project. As a national organization, engaging both French- and English-speaking supporters is an ongoing challenge. Their main strategy is to produce original content in both languages - one of the public education staff is based in Quebec and their podcasts are in French, and many French-speaking volunteers will blog in French as well. Cuso International’s website is available in both languages, they translate the best stories and their video series is available in French, English and Spanish. A more challenging question for Sean has been how to handle social media such as Facebook and Twitter: “we thought about creating separate pages/accounts for each language, but we didn’t want to fragment our supporters. Instead we try to encourage participation in both languages.”

Is it working?

Cuso International makes an effort to measure the impact of their stories, though Sean admits it’s an ongoing effort. But having a new web communications staff - Marcel Mutoni - is helping. Through website analytics, enewsletter statistics and social media clicks/views/likes, staff can get a feel for what content is popular and who goes on to apply to be a volunteer. However, Sean says that at the end of the day “it’s individual feedback that really lets you know that the stories you’ve shared are having an impact.”

Photos courtesy of Cuso International

Donated Products

Cuso International has received donated products through TechSoup Canada, including:


Related Resources


How to Record, Edit, and Promote Your Nonprofit's Podcast - A how-to on all the steps involved in producing a podcast

Seven Ways Nonprofits Can Use Podcasts - Ideas for podcast content

9 Steps to Great Nonprofit Podcasting - Tips to keep in mind when creating podcasts


Should Your Nonprofit Launch a Blog? - A basic explanation of blogs and RSS

5 Tips to Start a Nonprofit Blog - Practical advice to get you started blogging

Blogs We Recommend - A list of good nonprofit blogs


Secrets to Nonprofit Video Success - Advice from the YouTube Nonprofit Video Awards

Online Storytelling — How to Plan & Produce a Compelling Video - Tips from a past Toronto Net Tuesday on using video in your nonprofit

Nonprofit Video Production Tips - A list of resources to help you with production and videos in general

Tools for Digital Storytelling - Highlights from a webinar on this topic, with a link to the recorded webinar

8 great examples of nonprofit storytelling - Wonderful videos created with a range of different approaches to give you ideas and get you excited about what is possible 

Products Available through TechSoup Canada

TechSoup Canada offers several products to help you with your storytelling. These include: