‘Tis the season of giving—the time when so many nonprofit organizations go into high gear to tell stories of impact and success. After all, the stories about how these organizations change lives for the better touch our hearts and encourage us to open our wallets or give our time to help someone else. Sharing these stories can be catalytic for both the individuals served and the agencies and entities who serve them.
Sometimes, however, many well-meaning efforts to talk about good works have the unintended consequence of further victimizing the very people they seek to empower—because these narratives can emphasize deficits rather than the strength and dignity of individuals who are offered a hand and change their lives.
Although often invisible, there is an uneven balance of power between the helping organization and recipient of services. The narratives often are framed in this way: Person A was suffering, struggling, in desperate straits until Organization A stepped in to save Person A. Now Person A is doing well. But framing the story in this way marginalizes people, perpetuating the often untrue notion that their suffering is a result of their own failing, masking that the person is actually the victim of social injustice.
Organizations can provide an array of services, but it is the individuals who do the work to make the changes they seek. Organizations are the guide, the supporting character. The people they serve are and should be the heroes.
So how can organizations share their stories in an ethical and responsible way?
1. Understand the Why
Just as in the crafting of any communications effort, the first step should be to ask the purpose in sharing the story. Is this part of a fundraising effort? Are you trying to recruit volunteers? Are you trying to let others who may need your services become aware of how you can help?
Knowing the why provides direction on the audience you seek to engage and what result you seek to achieve. It also keeps you honest.
2. Recognize the Tension Between Donor Needs and Client Dignity
In a competitive landscape for funding, the organizations that break through are able to demonstrate real impact with data and compelling narratives that bring that data to life. The goal is to paint vivid pictures of the work that nonprofit enterprises do every day: a homeless person now in their own home; a sick person on the road to recovery; an elderly shut-in who is no longer alone.
Donors want to be moved and inspired. And because donors unconsciously follow the ‘savior’ narrative, that is the story they expect. To tell your organization’s stories in an ethical and respectful way requires a careful balance between donor expectations and the dignity of the story subjects. That means considering the story in the context of larger social injustice.
3. Ask before Sharing
Before writing case studies or posting success stories on social media, ask those you serve whether they are comfortable sharing their story and how they would like to do so. Recognize that when you ask, some people will want to tell their story; others may be less comfortable, but still feel beholden to the organization and therefore compelled to cooperate. What’s important is that clients own and control their story. Make it clear that they are in charge of their narrative and can opt in or out without fear that it will negatively affect their relationship with the organization. Make the story about the client’s journey fulfilling their aspirations and less about a direct endorsement of the organization’s value.
4. Explain How the Story Will be Used
I remember as a journalist the people who talked with me knowing that their story would be in the paper, but not really understanding what that impact would be. They would share their stories and then later have regrets because they never fully realized how wide and far the publication would go. In one case, a protester at an event came out as a gay man. A few hours later, he called me and begged me not to use his name because he was in the Army Reserve and realized that going public could damage his career. I made the choice not to use his name because I understood that he was a media novice.
Make sure you explain how the story will be used, where it will appear, and that once out there it will be there forever. If you are engaging with the media, make sure you provide coaching and support for your clients when they talk with reporters. Consider having a member of your communications staff or a specialist/consultant be present at the interview.
5. Find Ways to Help People Tell Their Own Stories
One of the greatest gifts we can give to others is agency—that is, the individual’s power and control of their own narrative. Take the time to talk with those you serve about their experiences, what they are comfortable sharing, and what they are not. And if they are interested, find ways to help them share the stories themselves. First person accounts in a client’s own words can be the most powerfully persuasive narrative.
6. Use Language Carefully
When describing needs and challenges, the language can define people by their hardships rather than by who they are as human beings. Be careful not to reinforce implicit biases or stereotypes that could do more harm.
7. Put Client Needs Ahead of the Organization
You want to share the stories of the people your organization serves to create an environment that lets you continue to help others. But their needs, privacy and safety must come before fundraising or any other perceived organizational need. If you have any doubts, don’t do it.
Storytelling is a powerful tool for nonprofits in soliciting support for services to help more people. But it must be done responsibly and ethically, so the people you are trying to help are able to maintain their privacy and dignity, control their own narrative, and command the respect they deserve.