International Documentaries in Global Development: Outreach, Measuring Impact and Engagement

By Julie Tumasz

Public and private organizations can use documentaries to widen the public’s awareness of development issues, motivate public involvement, and have a beneficial impact on non-profits’ social change goals. Non-government organizations (NGO), federal governments, and the private sector use a variety of different strategies to reach, impact, and engage documentary audiences – both while watching the film and afterwards, through activism and advocacy. Measurable outcomes of documentary films can be seen in several steps of the documentary process: the story, outreach, impact and finally, engagement.  The best strategies for organizations to effectively complete these steps are to engage the viewer before, during, and after the viewing.

This article will examine two widely distributed feature-length documentaries from two different American filmmakers that focus on promoting the same social goal of education. World Vision Documentaries describes the importance to tell a development story from the perspective of an outsider because that is the same perspective as the audience the filmmakers are targeting; these films were primarily aimed at American audiences. These feature films, making use of long-form storytelling, appropriately match the complexity of development work unlike short-form advertising, spots or social media.


A filmmaker captures a rural school in Kabwe, Zambia. Documentaries inform and motivate the global public to participate in international development issues. Photo courtesy of Flickr User Francesco Volpi, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.


Filmmakers must determine their target audience and the primary message of the documentary – and how that message intersects with the NGO’s mission – before filming even begins. An NGO’s documentary film is most successful when is it aligned with the NGO’s stated missions and goals from the beginning of filmmaking. During and after filming, NGOs host a variety of opportunities to hear feedback about their documentary and generate publicity, including private screenings, after-screening panels, and public interviews.

 Measuring Impact

Measuring impact is difficult and expensive. Some organizations that measure impact include the Participant Index, MIT Open Doc Lab and Video4Change. These organizations use a series of viewer surveys, worksheets, expert quotes, and case studies to record impact. Other impact evaluation organizations, such as StoryPilot and Sparkwise, pull internet data, use algorithms to analyze information and analyze films and viewings using a visual results approach to give data context.  Media impact evaluation programs answer the following questions: How many people saw or were exposed to the film? Who is the audience? And how did the audience respond? Organizations make evaluations if the total reach of the documentary exceeded the actual viewing audience of the film. Although Patricia Finneran, Director of Story Matters remarked, “Definitions of impact must be based on more than metrics because impact is not always about volume and reach but also about the depth of engagement and shifting key targets to achieve social goals.” To measure impact, NGOs look at social media buzz, media coverage, film profits, views and online shares.


To measure engagement, look at the documentary’s outcomes on action in a community. Did the film alter opinion broadly or within communities that can make a difference on the issue? How does the film relate to shifts in interest in or in opinion on a given issue? Organizations make evaluations whether there is a continuum of engagement, ranging from liking the film on Facebook or donating to a cause related to the film. To change behaviors of the public and engage, NGOs must execute a campaign alongside film promotion. NGOs often use the technique of encouraging audiences to sign petitions, share websites, letter-write to congress, donate, and volunteer both during and after film screenings. The film campaign strategists build a community through live screenings and events, connect audiences to existing campaigns, make audience become lobbyists in social media for specific issue, and connect audiences with each other through panels and discussions.

 Case Study #1: Girl Rising


Girl Rising is a feature-length documentary and a global awareness campaign focused on girls’ education. The story follows nine different girls from Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Peru, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan on their different journeys to education. Each girl was paired with a renowned writer from her native country and different celebrities narrated their stories, such as Liam Neeson, Meryl Streep, and Alicia Keys. Each story uses different visual editing techniques that set their narrative apart. Mariama’s story mixes stop-action footage and animation in Sierra Lione, while Amina’s story spreads the focus to a multitude of anonymous women in hijabs throughout Afghanistan. The commonality between all of them, like the 66 million girls around the world, is that they dream of going to school.


The multitude of storylines in Girl Rising reflects the number of partners paired to the documentary from the beginning of production. The Documentary Group, Intel, and Vulcan, produced the film and launched the social action campaign. CARE, United Nation’s Girl Up, Let Girls Learn, PLAN and World Vision participated in outreach and engagement activities like hosting film screenings. The campaign created additional partnerships with influential public and private sector organizations and initiatives, including the Clinton Global Initiative, #LetGirlsLearn, led by Michelle Obama and the Peace Corps, and Empower New Generations to Advance Girls’ Education (ENGAGE), a public-private partnership in India, Congo, and Nigeria.

 Measuring Impact

In just the first year, Girl Rising reached over 420,000 web visitors, 306,911 Facebook likes and 59,100 Twitter followers. The Participant Index is a media-impact research system that examines the social impact of entertainment on its audience through a mixed-dataset method that compiles social media conversations, viewership information and audience opinion data. According to the Participant Index, the audience found Girl Rising to be highly emotionally impactful with a high degree of social action. Girl Rising’s social action campaign energizes and supports community-led change, and provides people with a clear set of actions to break down barriers that hold girls back. Nine in ten viewers come away from the film understanding more about the social issue and half engaged in a community-oriented activity as a direct result of the viewing.


The Girl Rising campaign organized 17,000 screenings in 158 countries around the world and raised approximately $2 million in direct funding for girls’ education programs. The campaign organized 38 screenings targeting policy officials and engaged with the World Bank Group, U.S. Department of State, Congress, the United Nations (UN), Council on Foreign Relations, and the White House. On the UN’s International Day of the Girl in October 2013, the Girl Rising campaign launched a month-long global awareness campaign with more than 2000 events in more than 150 countries. Notable events with Girl Rising screenings include the Social Innovation Summit, the Women Deliver Conference in Malaysia, the G20 summit, the UNESCO Paris screening, and a U.S. Department of State Office of Women’s Issues event. The World Bank rally in April of 2013 was the most well-attended, with over 1,000 people in attendance for the Girl Rising Washington DC premiere. Girl Rising became part of TD Ameritrade’s long-term engagement campaign initiated to encourage their employees’ commitment to public service and create a consciousness about unseen injustices internationally. Girl Rising also received a direct United States Agency for International Development (USAID) investment of $3.6 million to build programs India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 Case Study #2: He Named Me Malala


In June 2015, Fox Searchlight and National Geographic released the documentary He Named Me Malala. The film, directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim and nominated for five Emmys, follows the life of Pakistani education activist and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai who survived an assassination attempt in 2012 for her outspoken advocacy. The story is told through emotional interviews, footage of Malala from Pakistan and London, Pakistani news footage, and hand-drawn animations illustrating Malala’s narrations.


The Malala Fund laid out three clear goals for their campaign: to encourage national governments to spend at least 20 percent of their budgets on education, for existing donor countries to use at least 10 percent of their aid to support education in the poorest countries, and for donor partners to increase their funding to the Global Partnership for Education so that it can support a full twelve years of education in developing countries. The campaign also asked participants to encourage others to see the film, sign petitions to world leaders, and donate to the Malala Fund’s girls’ education projects in Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. 21st Century Fox supported the film, organizing free screenings and educational resources for students, matching employee contributions to the Malala Fund, and launching social media campaigns to drive donations and awareness.

Measuring Impact

In total, 21st Century Fox gave nearly $125,000 in direct donations to the Malala Fund as a result of these initiatives, providing much-needed aid to the organization’s programs for Syrian refugee children. Targeted advocacy campaigns in twelve key countries achieved specific political and social changes to advance girls’ access to twelve years of education. The campaign included toolkits and information on how to organize lesson plans, host film screens and provided supporting educational materials for teachers and students.


As of May, 2017, the campaign has global success. The Malala Fund’s international “Stand #withMalala” campaign connected with ten million people worldwide, building a movement for girls’ education. The Malala Fund included widespread action around International Day of the Girl on October 11, with events in the United States, Japan, Nigeria, France and Kenya. Working with local partners, the campaign provided special screenings for leaders and policy makers and catalyze grassroots support for increased secondary education funding.


While both Girl Rising and He Named Me Malala address girls’ education, their documentary production and campaign strategy vary throughout the story, outreach, impact and engagement stages. The main three differences to discuss are number of partners, paired NGO and film goals and outreach scale.

While Girl Rising had three main founding, strategic and production partners; The Documentary Group, Intel and Vulcan, He Named Me Malala was released by only one large scale production company, Fox Searchlight with secondhand support from National Geographic. Girl Rising has a higher impact than He Named Me Malala based on measuring policy-oriented screenings, direct funding, and social engagement events, Girl Rising’s outreach success was a direct effect of an initial pairing of strategies between the film and the multitude of organizations involved. The Documentary Group, Intel, and Vulcan controlled the main production and outreach decisions from the beginning, inviting the smaller impact partners such as Girl Up, Care, and World Vision to also join in the conversation at the early stages. Girl Rising’s powerful engagement with society was successful because not only one organization shared the film’s common mission but the numerous organizations that became part of the discussion that aligned the film to fit into each of their social movements.

By not trying to compromise with numerous NGOs, He Named Me Malala was able to created its own successful non-profit organization, the Malala Fund, based on their three clear film outreach goals; raising government spending on education, aid spending in fragile states, and sponsor donations. Just as the storyline of Girl Rising did not focus on one story, the campaign was unable to have one mission when it had to answer to numerous partners. Additionally, pairing the NGO with He Named Me Malala gave the Malala Fund credibility and public leverage. Because full credit cannot be awarded to one organization for Girl Rising, none of the partners receive the full benefit of calling it their own. NGO outreach managers must address the positives and negatives of having numerous or limited impact partners when creating their documentaries production strategy.

Girl Rising’s engagement had an influential reach by interacting with higher-level policy officials including those in the U.S. Government, the G20 Summit, and the World Bank. The Malala Fund focused their engagement to the private sector in Kenya, France, Nigeria and Japan, and focused less on the policy makers. Producers and outreach managers must balance their target audience to include both the private and the public sector to create the strongest impact.

Non-profit, public and private organizations should be using documentaries to widen the public’s awareness of development issues, motivate public involvement and have a beneficial impact on non-profits’ social change goals. To effectively reach viewers, filmmakers, producers, and campaign strategists must tie the documentary’s goals to the mission of the organization all the way through story, outreach, impact, and engagement.

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