5 Ways for Nonprofits to Tell an Ethical Story

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A friend of mine was asked to be the client speaker at a nonprofit organization’s fundraising event recently. She is an educated, compassionate, funny woman raising an equally smart and compassionate son. She wrote a beautiful speech that shared the story of her family, their triumphs, and how this organization helped them navigate a challenging moment. When she got edits back, the speech had been stripped of her individuality and personal successes. And language had been added to suggest she had not been helped by the organization, but rather saved by it.

In an effort to raise money and awareness for causes, nonprofit organizations often feel compelled to tell stories of desperate victims. Well-intentioned efforts to convey the urgency and severity of need lead organizations to reduce people to their problems. And to stand out in the crowded marketplace, organizations often conflate value with heroism, representing themselves as saviors in individuals’ stories. These strategies may succeed in achieving temporary goals—pity does raise money. So does convincing someone they are a hero by giving. But there are bigger dangers inherent in these practices.

Reducing someone to a problem when he offered to share his story—an extraordinary act of charitable giving all its own—is a victimizing act, and it imposes a viewpoint of his situation he may not share. On a broader scale, it can reinforce false stereotypes most nonprofits try to combat about who lives in poverty, who has a mental health condition, and who faces obstacles bigger than they alone can overcome (which is all of us).

I have certainly made these storytelling mistakes. In an effort to convey the urgent need to fix substandard housing, I have told stories that focused on the severity of the housing conditions themselves, neglecting the fact that these stories are firstly about the person experiencing the poor housing, and secondarily about the societal structures contributing to the problem. In my experience, people who work at nonprofits are conscious of the tension between promoting their work and protecting their clients. But the tension is often wrongly associated with the act of storytelling itself—the notion that sharing someone’s story or name is itself victimizing. Storytelling is inherently value neutral, and it can be victimizing or empowering depending on what the narrative says and how it is used.

Here are five ways we can all be more empowering storytellers.

1. Avoid “case example syndrome.”

The companion strategy to over-emphasizing the distressing details of someone’s situation is to stick to short, anonymous descriptions of problems. I call it “case example syndrome,” and it is an epidemic in the nonprofit world. How many times have you read something like this?

Mary (not her real name) came to our program because the trash in her apartment building was attracting mice and violating several housing codes. Her daughter had gone to the emergency room for pneumonia three times. Mary was referred to our program, and we forced her landlord to remove the trash from the building and hire an exterminator. Because of our program, Mary’s daughter is feeling better and has a chance for a brighter future.

Organizations often adapt this strategy with good intentions, either to protect clients’ identities or to arrive quickly at the successful intervention. Setting aside the fact that this is not storytelling, this approach is reductionist and removes everything human and relatable. Organizations should always use names and share parts of a person’s story that let the reader know they are more than their disease, their problem, or their circumstances.

2. Ask someone how he wants his story shared.

Great effort goes into finding the right story and messenger for an organization’s events, public awareness campaigns, and public policy initiatives, and it should; it is important to represent the organization’s message well. But telling a story that is beneficial to the organization should not exclude telling one that is beneficial to the individual. Organizations should apply the same empowerment mentality to storytelling that they do to providing services. Ask clients not just if it is okay to share their stories, but to be partners in how and where those stories are told. Be aware of the power dynamic present in asking someone to share her story, and remind her that the choice to speak out is hers to make. When the story is finished, stop and ask yourself, “If this were about me, would I want my story shared in this way?”

3. Represent your organization as a partner in a person or community’s success, not a savior.

I work with civil legal aid agencies and healthcare institutions to build cross-sector partnerships that help address systemic issues of hunger, housing, and health. The individuals who come through the doors of these partnerships are already working hard to help themselves. And despite the stress of their circumstances, they are raising families and experiencing great joy. When these partnerships work right and a housing problem is solved or someone is enrolled in health insurance, it does make a difference. But the individual’s advocacy was a big part of that success. Think of ways to use storytelling to convey that advocacy—personal and systemic—is successful because individuals and organizations work toward a goal together.

4. Ensure others can see themselves in the story.

People may donate money when they feel pity toward someone, but stereotypes about poverty, illness, and marginalization are broken when people recognize a family member or friend’s experience in a story. When we work with people who are vulnerable financially, physically, or emotionally, one of the first things we do is try to normalize their experience. Why shouldn’t part of our storytelling strategy be to ensure others can see some part of themselves or their experience in a person’s story?

5. Challenge myths about the issue you address.

We live in a world with an increasingly short attention span, and organizations face pressure to be captivating in 140 characters or less. But brevity does not require surrendering nuance or playing into stereotypes. In fact, challenging myths about your issue and offering a surprising perspective is a good way to get people’s attention, and there is no better tool for doing so than human story. So choose an unlikely protagonist or find a new, empowering angle for an old issue. Tell the unexpected story.

Telling empowering stories is critical to the long-term goals of changing public opinion and policy around the issues nonprofits address and people they serve. While I am not sure what impact these practices would have on short-term goals like fundraising, I would like to believe we can all be inspired to give money or time because we see our own moments of need reflected in our neighbors’ stories. I write this as a reminder to myself to be more conscious of the ways I tell stories, and in hopes that we, as a nonprofit community, will hold each other accountable to keep human well-being not just at the center of the work we do, but also at the center of the stories we tell about it.

  • 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.