• Susan Haig

    This excellent article points to an ongoing problem in journalism and broadcast news: victimization, as a criteria for news, has the unintended consequence of disempowering citizens – day in and day out. Thanks for clarifying that our society needs informed and confident citizens, and that the nonprofit sphere can set an example of empowering story-telling.

  • John Capecci

    Nicely said. Thank you for this important reminder. Advocates–the brave and committed individuals who dare move from private to public with their stories–deserve not only respect but support and coaching from the organizations who rely on them. They are not only the owners of their stories–they are often the most powerful messengers. Also an excellent reminder for organizations to broaden the view of “useful” stories. The big, dramatic stories are needed; so are the small moments of insight and change. They can be as powerful.

  • Kate Marple

    Great point Susan. And I think the other side effect of victimizing narratives in the news is that they either overwhelm readers with a sense that there is nothing we can do about our collective problems OR they create false distance from our neighbors — “them” and “us” — that leads to disengagement.

  • Kate Marple

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts John. I love what you wrote here about clients being the owners of their stories. They also risk the most by speaking out — opening the door for criticism and misunderstandings. We (as a society and as organizations) certainly owe them a debt of gratitude and respect for telling their story so that others can benefit.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Read Ken Burnett’s just-released book – Storytelling Can Change the World. Ken’s seminal 90s book – Relationship Fundraising – forced the sector into a donor-centered focus. (Unfortunately, the sector still doesn’t do that so well. And certainly not in the communications field.) And Ken’s new book about storytelling is inspiring, useful, and practical.

    See also Tom Ahern’s e-news and books about donor-centered communications and storytelling.

    And… there is a special conference in Seattle in November – focused only on storytelling. Jeff Brooks and Tom Ahern are the headliners.

  • Keenan Wellar

    How wonderful to see this article just two days after the final segment of the AFP Diversity to Inclusion series, the final conference being “Opportunities and Possibilities: Fundraising and People with Disabilities.” I participated as a panelist to talk about the “charity model” vs the “social model” and its applications to fundraising messages. Far too often I see organizations with mission statements and programs that do a fine job of promoting or featuring assets-based outcomes, but these are totally contradicted by fundraising campaigns with denigrating messages of pity.

    On a more subtle basis, I loved the important point about “case example syndrome” as oversimplification of problem-solving in human services can be extremely damaging, as it can focus donor and funder expectations on tidy solutions that are totally unrealistic to the situations where agencies are working on the ground. This in turn leads to mission draft and the intended beneficiary is the victim, as they are not getting the supports and services that actually work best.

  • Kate Marple

    Thanks for the great recommendations Simone. I will definitely check out Ken Burnett’s book. While we are resource swapping, I’ll say that I love the resources put out by Andy Goodman at The Goodman Center.

  • Kate Marple

    Keenan, I think you really hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the disconnect between missions/programs and fundraising. Most nonprofits embrace empowerment in its mission and service delivery — every staff member can talk about its importance — but it somehow gets lost in translation in marketing efforts. How can we overcome that? What other institutional changes need to happen to make that shift?

  • Keenan Wellar

    First a great article and now a great question 😉

    My answer is that if your marketing is failing to advance your mission then you are failing your mission and therefore both staff and board are failing to exercise their duty of care for the organization.

    The mission is not to raise money. We raise money to support the mission.

    Our sector is about solving problems and creating a positive change in our communities and the world. The messages we send are therefore hugely important and sending out a fundraising letter with messages that detract from our mission, misrepresent our membership or supported population, or otherwise cause preventable harm, should be treated as seriously as any other beach of trust.

    And that’s the sort of message I’d be delivering to anyone who isn’t at least making the effort to struggle with the alignment between their mission vision and values and the way they communicate wants and needs to donors and the public.

  • Kate Marple

    Great points! I think awareness and consciousness is a big part of it. 9/10 times I’ve encountered this problem, it has been unintentional, even unconscious. I think the first step is having these kind of discussions as a team, revisiting marketing materials with empowerment is mind, and even talking with key donors about it. Just having these conversations would be huge. I also think anything we can do to shift messaging from “charity” to “community” is vital. There is a health center in Hawaii that my organization works with sometimes, Kokua Kalihi Valley, and their motto is “Neighbors being neighborly to neighbors.” It’s one of my favorite taglines I’ve ever seen, and their marketing is infused with that mission.


    Very well written, excellent piece!… A must read for those working in non-profit sector.

  • Jennifer Lentfer

    Unfortunately assumptions and generalizations about who poor people are, what they need, and how those in wealthy countries can help them, have been a part of international development communications for decades.

    With my Spring 2014 International Development Communications class of Georgetown University’s Public Relations & Corporate Communications Masters Program, we developed some guidelines for the future of communicating about the end of global poverty, which includes the ethical issues you raised here for the international setting: http://issuu.com/howmatters/docs/the_development_element

  • Andres

    I frequently read Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks’ articles and books for work. While they’re certainly talented communicators, I find it hard to believe that either of them would be on board with the storytelling style the author is advocating. To me, both men seem more interested in raising money through storytelling that reinforces the power dynamics between giver and receiver, perpetuates stereotypes, etc. than much else. And that’s a shame.

  • Andres

    Thank you for this. Too often, I’m compelled to exclude details from a client story because something about it was deemed too “messy” to be shared with donors. But what does that even mean? Isn’t life supposed to be messy? I see point #2 as a great place to start telling more complete stories that show greater respect for the dignity of the client and the intelligence of the donor.

  • Andres

    I could be wrong, but I doubt Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks would be on board with this kind of storytelling. “Donor heroism” is sort of their thing. It’s good for raising money, but this approach frequently oversimplifies, if not out-right distorts, how people’s problems are solved. This article (as I read it) aims to consider more than just funding when it comes to telling good stories.