A blue neon sign reading "What is Your Story?" The sign sits in an office window with the lights turned off.
Image Credit: Etienne Girardet on unsplash.com

Many people working in nonprofits and philanthropy say they want to reduce poverty, and increasingly, foundations, nonprofits, and social-movement organizations are developing communications strategies and telling stories that aim to dispel the myth that the US economic system is equitable and fair.

However, the Right has long propagated narratives that shape our society’s institutions and culture—and it requires conscious effort to upend them. As such, the stories shared by nonprofits and philanthropists too often reinforce the status quo rather than change it. Inadvertently, myths that poor people are lazy or inherently bad, or that rich people earned their wealth by sheer fortitude and hard work, creep in. Mythologies of both the “undeserving poor” and the “meritorious rich” erase legacies of racial capitalism and its systemic exploitation, theft, and violence.

In 2019, our team of practitioners (Radical Communicators Network), scholars (Center for Public Interest Communications), and creatives (Milli) began to explore narratives about poverty and wealth coming from the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Having spent decades working in and studying these sectors, we found that many well-intentioned organizations uphold harmful narratives about poverty and wealth in their efforts to counter them.


What We Did 

To explore the narratives coming from philanthropy and nonprofits, we conducted an academic literature review, a content analysis of narrative work from a sample of organizations working on issues related to economic inequality, and interviews with representatives from organizations doing storytelling well.

The product of our three years of work, BROKE is a multidisciplinary toolkit that identifies pervasive narratives about poverty and wealth coming from the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors and offers guidance on how to tell better stories for economic justice. In addition to providing nonprofits and philanthropy an opportunity to examine the stories they tell about poverty and wealth, BROKE highlights ways that movements can craft new narratives rooted in social science as well as the wisdom of lived experience of poverty and economic-justice organizing. We hope that by collaborating to tell better stories about how the rich get rich and the poor stay poor, movements—including activists, communicators, storytellers, and strategists—can begin to transform an oppressive capitalist economic system and build a free, just world in which all people can live with dignity.


Digging Deeper: Behind Our Research

To develop the BROKE toolkit, we began by drafting a series of questions designed to assess narratives related to economic inequality. We then collected 27 pieces of content produced by 10 organizations, ranging from small community groups to large foundations and charities. Each piece of content served as an example of how the groups framed poverty on their websites or social media. Though our sample size was small, the content analyzed reflected common patterns in narrative practice. We chose to keep the names of the organizations anonymous. We are not pointing fingers; we simply want to learn.

The questions we drafted were based on the Center for Public Interest Communications’ work on the science of stories; Shanelle Matthews’ work on narrative power; and the work of experts on critical race theory, intersectionality, and ethical storytelling. They helped us analyze whether nonprofits and foundations were:

  • Telling compelling and persuasive stories
  • Telling complex stories about systems of oppression
  • Telling stories that shift power to the people
  • Telling stories that counter pervasive harmful narratives to build a new world


What We Learned—And What You Can Do 

How can nonprofits and philanthropy more effectively advance economic justice? By telling good stories.

A story follows a narrative arc—with a beginning, middle, and end. There is conflict and resolution, characters, and a setting. When readers experience a great story, we are transported into the characters’ worlds. Their experiences become our own, changing us. Because we do not assume that the storyteller is trying to debate or argue with us, we enter a cognitive state that opens us up to new ideas and information. To realize these cognitive benefits, we need to tell actual stories, with all their narrative elements.1

Of the 27 pieces of content that we sampled, only 25 percent told stories. Instead, most were profiles or vignettes. While these have their place, they lack plots and so cannot do the narrative work of stories.

We also examined whether the content analyzed perpetuated common tropes, including:

  • The idea that poor people need saving
  • The idea that people are poor because of individual choices
  • White saviorism
  • Success defined as achieving the American dream

We found that nearly half of the content shared with us featured poor people in need of saving, while the narratives told by a few organizations suggested that people are poor because of their choices.

Lastly, we examined whether stories told by the sector made calls to action. Such calls are most effective when they are specific, easy to do, and are consistent with social norms. In fact, research from the Norman Lear Center found that people were more likely to take action to end homelessness after reading a news story when the call to action was framed as a social norm (such as joining the 5,000 people who had already donated to the cause). In our analysis of 27 pieces of content, only two (seven percent) included a call to action.

In short, nonprofits and philanthropy can be more effective by telling stories that follow a narrative arc and include a good call to action.

As you craft stories, ask yourself:

  1. Are you using a clear narrative arc?
  2. Does this story reinforce harmful narratives about poverty, wealth, and how change happens?
  3. Do you include a moral or calls to action for your community?


Telling Stories about Systems of Oppression

There is a pervasive narrative in US culture—from pop culture to politics—that poverty is a result of individual choices and therefore requires individualistic solutions. These individualistic stories are easy to tell. Yet, they are inaccurate and do not match what data and research tell us: people are primarily poor because the institutions that make up our society systematically ignore and disenfranchise people of color, women, and gender-queer people, as well as working-class people of all identities.

To change the narratives surrounding poverty and wealth, we need to tell stories about systems.

We also asked whether organizations included systemic analysis in their content. Nearly 80 percent said they did. Less than half of them, however, identified the root cause of the conflict as systemic, and only a quarter of them included racism, patriarchy, or capitalism as a systemic factor. 

To tell more accurate stories, and to change the narratives surrounding poverty and wealth, we need to tell stories about systems. Plot points and conflicts should arise as characters navigate a racist healthcare system, hiring discrimination, or the criminal-legal system that over polices Black and Brown communities. Stories can illustrate the pervasiveness of rising housing costs, low-wage jobs, and inhumane working conditions. We must tell stories that reveal the workings of White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. And always show, don’t tell.

As you craft stories, ask yourself:

  1. Do you include systems in your story? Do you show through story plot points how systems oppress and privilege people?
  2. Do you include details to help readers understand the historical, political, geographic, social, and economic contexts that systems develop and thrive in?
  3. Is the conflict in your story between the central character and a system?
  4. Did you illustrate how racism, capitalism, sexism, ableism, and so on, shape the lives of characters?


Tell Stories that Empower People

Organizations often tell stories to justify their own work. As a result, the organization makes itself the hero or protagonist. For example, the organization often portrays itself as saving deserving poor people and helping them integrate into society, providing evidence to donors and supporters that the organization plays a critical part in solving the problem. While the latter may be true, by telling such stories repeatedly, organizations perpetuate the idea that there are deserving (and by implication, undeserving) poor and that poor people lack agency.

We saw this trend in our research. About 70 percent of the content we analyzed featured organizations as having power. Only 44 percent featured characters in poverty as having power and agency, while 41 percent featured poor people who “needed saving.”

Of course, organizations need to tell stories to funders. We suggest telling stories that depict the organization as a critical part of a movement or network working for systemic change through collective action. Be thoughtful about who is the hero and villain (or root cause) in the story. The heroes should be communities (including organizations) engaging in collective action to transform systems, and the root cause of the problem should be unjust systems.

To tell such stories, partner with people who have lived experience of poverty (including staff) and let them tell their own stories. We know from research that when people who have such experience share their stories, the story is seen as more authentic—and can increase understanding of and respect for the storyteller.

As you craft stories, ask yourself:

  1. Is the source of the problem a system or an individual character?
  2. How have you illustrated the power and agency of people in your community without placing the cause of the problem on them?


Storytelling Ethics

As advocates support communities in sharing their stories, they must act with extreme care. It is critical not to retraumatize or tokenize anyone in order to make use of their experience. People should tell their stories on their terms.

Recently, Define American, which works to change narratives about immigration, released a report—American Dreaming: Roadmap to Resilience for Undocumented Storytellers—which addresses such issues and offers powerful, ethical storytelling practices. It offers valuable questions to ask storytellers, including:

  1. Is now a good time to share your story? How have you been since we last connected?
  2. What do you feel comfortable sharing now?
  3. Have you shared your/this story before?

The report also recommends that advocacy groups make the following commitments to undocumented storytellers:

  • We will use your answers as guides with which to establish healthy boundaries in our collaborations and will not ask for additional details or efforts.
  • We will offer ways to scale down your work or provide a way for you to step away from the project if necessary.
  • We will facilitate training of movement organizations and give guidance to lay a foundation for good health and wellbeing in the storytelling community.
  • We will offer a scope of work, compensation, and timeline for involvement and ask if these are in line with your expectations.
  • We will design ways of seeking feedback and suggestions for nurturing your mental health and wellbeing in our work.
  • We will hold others we work with, particularly in the media, accountable for honoring your contributions, including the proper use of pronouns and pronunciation of names.

When partnering with storytellers, it is also vital to make sure that people are not defined solely by the injustice and inequity they have experienced. Great stories create opportunities for us to connect by including rich details. As author Jacqueline Woodson has famously said, “The more specific we are, the more universal something can become.” Be sure to share details about who storytellers are beyond their experience with your organization or poverty.

For example, a video by Invisible People, a media organization we interviewed for this project, features the story of Olivia and Alex, a mother and her son, experiencing homelessness and living in a motel. In her story, Olivia talks about her dream of becoming a lawyer, her desire to hang out with friends, and Alex’s health needs. We connect with her as she shares details about who she is. Migrant Justice, a grassroots organization of farmworkers, offers another example of exceptional storytelling: “The Cows Don’t Milk Themselves,” a talk by organizer Enrique Balcazar, exemplifies the insights listed above.

As you craft stories, ask yourself:

  1. Have you partnered with people with lived experience of poverty to tell their stories with care?
  2. Have you included cultural details and experiences?
  3. Whose point of view is the story written from? Is it communities closest to injustice?
  4. Have you illustrated the power and agency of people in your community without placing the cause of the problem on them?


Tell Stories to Imagine a New World

Storytelling is worldmaking. We can write new stories to change our future by celebrating shared movement values.

Pervasive narratives that blame poverty on poor people are old. Economic-justice advocates must tell stories that unearth the history of such narratives to avoid perpetuating their myths. This work also helps illuminate the roots of unjust systems.

Storytelling is worldmaking. We can write new stories to change our future by celebrating shared movement values. In this regard, we’re inspired by organizations like those listed above, as well as Southerners on New Ground, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Economic Security Project, and Action Center on Race and the Economy. These organizations are telling stories that center justice, equality, fairness, solidarity, and care. You can read more about what we learned from these organizations about how to tell stories in our report.

As you tell stories, ask yourself:

  1. Does this story contribute to a more nuanced, systems-focused narrative?
  2. Do the underlying values in the story reflect your shared values?


Principles for Storytelling Movements

Above, we shared five principles to change narratives about poverty and wealth. To review, these are:

  1. Tell stories with clear calls to action
  2. Tell complex stories about unjust, oppressive systems
  3. Tell stories that highlight the power of individuals and communities
  4. Tell stories ethically
  5. Tell stories that imagine a new world

Today, many nonprofits and philanthropic organizations are ready to tell stories and commit to systems change that benefits everyone. Research, practice, and community wisdom can help these sectors craft stories that advance economic justice. Let’s build the world we want to see—together.


This article is dedicated to our colleague and coauthor Rakeem Robinson, who contributed greatly to this project and passed away last year. You can read more about Rakeem here.



  1. We recognize that across cultures there are other ways to convey stories that do not fit within the logic of the Western narrative arc. We base our analysis on our research and experience.