Ethical Storytelling: A Guide for Nonprofits
Nonprofit organizations rely on the support of others to help them tackle some of the world's most challenging problems. One of the most powerful ways of reaching supporters is through storytelling.
Sharing stories about how your organization has impacted real people or situations creates an emotional connection with supporters, offers a deeper understanding of your organization's mission, and helps to compel others to take action and donate, volunteer or partner.
Being truthful, respectful, and empathetic in your storytelling is essential to building trust with those you serve, engaging donors to act and achieving your organization's mission. Nonprofits have a special responsibility to tell stories in a way that respects the dignity and rights of individuals because of who they serve and the sensitive issues they address. This is a practice known as ethical storytelling.
Ethical storytelling is sharing narratives committed to honesty, accuracy and empathy with an awareness of their potential impact on people's lives. It can be a delicate line to walk, and we may not always realize that stories can reinforce bias and incorrect perceptions about individuals, communities and cultures. A great example of this is a video from Mama Hope that illustrates how African men are portrayed in the media, which is often one-dimensional and simply untrue.
Sometimes nonprofits shy away from telling stories to avoid the risk of inadvertently exploiting others. But this is a missed opportunity. Storytelling is a powerful communication tool that, when done correctly, can also break down harmful stereotypes and provide profound meaning.
Here are some tips to help your organization become a more honest and ethical storyteller.
In order to share your organization's mission with others, you will need to listen to the stories of those you have helped. Being transparent about why you want to tell their story and allowing them to give their permission builds trust, which makes them more comfortable sharing the story honestly and fully. Treat them with respect and dignity; ask questions considerately; and give them the time and space to process and answer questions, and the freedom to decline to answer uncomfortable questions.
Choose the Right Interviewer
For some, sharing a personal story about how an organization has helped them can be emotional or triggering. Consider who might be the best person to gather this information. Ideally, it could be someone — such as a caseworker, program manager, coach or other nonprofit staff member — who has an established relationship with the individual.
Make sure people see the final version of their story and have the opportunity to provide feedback. Doing so can extend the project timeline, but it also ensures they are comfortable with the presentation. If it’s a written piece, include direct quotes as much as possible. The story you tell will define them for years to come in today's digital world. Getting their input provides a sense of ownership of their story.
Be Culturally Sensitive
Let the story unfold naturally rather than how you think it should go. Part of this process is being culturally sensitive to topics that might seem fine from your perspective but can be stigmatizing, shameful or harmful in other cultures. This doesn't mean they can't still tell their side of the story, but it may create some challenges for them to speak their truth.
When sharing the story of someone your nonprofit serves, start with the positive. No one wants to be defined by their problems first. Starting with their aspirations or contributions versus their challenges will make the story more asset framed.
Create Empowering Visual Stories
If you are using video to tell a story, show people in the environment in which they feel most comfortable and natural. Don't shoot from above when taking photos or shooting videos. Often, I see people experiencing homelessness shown on the ground and shot from above. This portrays an explicit power dynamic and minimizes their humanity. Always shoot at their level or even from below.
Ask "Who Is the Hero of the Story?"
Often, and sometimes unintentionally, the nonprofit is the hero of the story and takes credit for the person’s success. From an asset-framing standpoint, this makes the person your organization serves the problem that your nonprofit had to modify or subdue in some way. Recipients of your organization's well-doing should be the hero of their stories.
Storytelling is a powerful and effective way for nonprofits to build a connection with their supporters, partners and community to show how they carry out their missions. But, in doing so, nonprofits have a responsibility to tell the stories ethically, with honesty and respect.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: How Storytelling Can Help Personalize Donor Communications
Leeann Alameda has more than 20 years of experience in directing and implementing best practices in marketing, branding, communications and advertising in both the private and nonprofit sectors. She is the founder and principal consultant of Alameda Marketing Solutions, which provides marketing strategy and branding services for nonprofits, foundations and mission-driven businesses.