To Publish or Not to Publish?
A few years ago, a person came through our program who previously spent several years in long-term addiction recovery. He had successfully reconnected with his family and friends, became a valuable member of his community and was eager to share his personal story as a way to encourage others seeking recovery. When a local reporter approached us seeking a participant who’d been impacted by the opioid crisis and was currently in recovery, we thought he would be the right person for the story.
He practiced and prepared for the interview, and when the day came, he did a great job. Sadly, shortly after the interview, he experienced a recurrence of opioid use. While it can be difficult to attribute this to a single factor, we certainly reflected upon the role sharing his story in such a public way may have contributed to this.
Nonprofits working with addiction and recovery became hyper-aware of the tension between maintaining anonymity and sharing the impact of their work with current and potential donors. Fundraising is about stories. People want to give to other people, not to organizations. These challenges are not unique to the addiction recovery nonprofit community, but the ways which we have worked to address this tension may be a useful lesson for others struggling to think through similar issues in their own work.
Understand the Risks
Conversations about whether or not to share private information publicly are not limited to the addiction and recovery community, but they certainly have a long history there. As far back as the temperance movement in the 1800’s, questions about whether or not to disclose one’s struggles with addiction were discussed.
Similarly, anonymity has always been a hallmark of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). On an individual level, anonymity provided protection to members and an extra assurance to those considering attending a meeting from the stigma and discrimination individuals with alcoholism experienced. On an organizational level, anonymity focused on equality among its members and guarded against those who might exploit their AA affiliation for recognition or personal gain.
In addition, years of experience had shown that “ego-inflating” activities, like media attention, speaking engagements or other kinds of publicity, could be a factor in returning to substance use. Many experts in the recovery community determined that anonymity was one way to guard against the slippery slope that might pull people out of recovery and into relapse. There was also a fear that someone sharing their story, who then relapses, may find it harder to re-engage in recovery because of shame or embarrassment.
Give It time
Whenever we approach a current or past participant of our long-term recovery program about a story opportunity, we try to make sure they have enough time to consider the opportunity. This includes discussing the opportunity with someone from their network of support, such as a trusted advisor, to fully understand the risks to themselves or their loved ones that telling their story publicly may bring.
We want to make sure they have all the information available to them to make an informed decision. We’ll also talk through the story request and communicate exactly what it will involve, who will see it and where it might be shared.
Spread the Love
As much as possible, we try to spread out speaking or sharing opportunities so it doesn’t just fall to one person. Consistently sharing positive stories can make it difficult for someone to share honest, candid struggles, because it creates an expectation that they always have to be perfect.
I also try to be intentional about reminding folks, prior to sharing their own personal story, that they may be exposed to a lot of praise and positive feedback as a result of sharing their story publicly; and there are times when that can feel incongruent with their own day-to-day life. Acknowledging and talking about this helps to guard against that slippery slope into relapse that I mentioned earlier.
Use Creative Communications
There are times in our work when it’s appropriate — and sometimes even necessary — to alter someone’s identity in order to help empower them to share their story. That may mean changing their name, using a stock photo instead of sharing their actual photo or allowing them to do a phone interview instead of a television interview.
These steps allow someone to begin testing the waters of sharing their recovery story, while also protecting their identity. Interestingly, in our experience, we’ve found that identity-altering measures can also be harmful if they further the stigma associated with addiction and recovery. There is a fine line we walk here every day with our communications and marketing staff, but our first priority is to always honor the privacy and dignity of our participants, while communicating in a truthful and honest manner.
Nonprofits face unique challenges when communicating their impact to donors. We all work daily to ensure we’re honoring those we serve while also accurately and powerfully conveying the value of our work to our community. Intentional, purposeful communications takes time. But in my experience, when done well, it leads to powerful, life-changing connections between the nonprofit organization and its donor community.
Chris Budnick, MSW, LCSW, LCAS, CCS is the executive director at Healing Transitions and has been working in the addiction treatment and recovery field since 1993. Chris became a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor in 1998. He graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a Master of Social Work. He has been fully licensed as a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist since 2001; a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 2002; and a Clinical Certified Supervisor since 2003. He was an intern from 1999 to 2000 with Healing Transitions and has been employed with them since 2000.
Chris has been an adjunct instructor with the North Carolina State University Department of Social Work since 2002, and has served on their Advisory Board since 2003, serving as chair on two different occasions. He also serves on the Recovery Africa Board.
Chris has conducted training and presentations nationally and internationally. Some of his most rewarding work has been collaborating with Mr. William White and Mr. Boyd Pickard on the history of mutual aid recovery fellowships.