Nonprofits and storytelling go hand-in-hand. From heartfelt donor appeals to success stories in an annual report, storytelling offers a way to connect with stakeholders and encourage them to support a worthy cause.
Yet despite our best intentions, stories, when not told with care, can do more harm than good. That’s why ethical storytelling is a concept every nonprofit should become deeply familiar with.
Ethical communication means sharing stories in a way that both protects and dignifies the individuals or groups whose experiences we are attempting to convey. It means putting the needs of our subjects over those of our organizations, with deep regard for consent, dignity, integrity, truthfulness and respect.
To gain a better understanding of ethical storytelling (so it can become an ingrained part of your storytelling process), here are 10 things to consider. A big shout-out to the folks at ethicalstorytelling.com—one of our new favorite nonprofit websites—for providing so much inspiration. We highly recommend checking them out!
Things to consider:
1. Ask permission. Before you use someone’s story—let alone their name or image—it’s important to obtain their explicit consent. (Feel free to download these consent forms and use them at your convenience). If you decide to use their information again in a different way, make sure to ask.
2. Make them feel comfortable saying no. Consider this: if you request an interview or photo from someone your organization has helped, they may feel obligated to say yes. Let them know that their participation is completely optional.
3. Remind them that what goes on the internet remains there. Stories you post online can follow the subject for years to come—even after they have become a different person. When asking permission, it’s good to ensure your subject understands this.
4. Be upfront. Let your subjects know precisely how you plan to use the requested material, whether posting on Facebook or including it in a PowerPoint (even if you don’t think many people will see it). Some people—such as survivors of violence or abuse—may not wish to have their name or image shared with the public.
5. Be transparent about your motives. Plan to use someone’s overcomer story or photograph to help raise funds? Say so. Want to use their story to inspire optimism in others? Again, let them know. People have the right to be selective about what they stand behind.
6. Involve them from start to finish. Your subject should have a say in anything you write or post about them. Best practices include never writing a story “blind” without seeking input or, at the very least, asking your subject to review and comment on whatever you create and plan to release.
7. Remember who the story is really about. Understandably, nonprofits are often programmed to approach storytelling as a way to showcase the good they are doing. But in reality, the heroes of every story are those who’ve lived through them and overcome difficult situations, with or without support. Keep this in mind for each story you tell, and find the right balance.
8. Be culturally sensitive. You already know customs that are normal in America may be different elsewhere and vice versa. Be conscious of the culture and unique perspectives of both your subject and your intended audience.
9. Tell it how you would want it to be told. Perform a “gut check” for every story you tell and decide whether you would feel comfortable if it were a story about you. Don’t hesitate to lean on colleagues or peers to help you decide if something seems appropriate.
10. Make it part of their healing. Try to tell stories that make your subjects feel proud and empowered. If they were to read it in five years, would it be another reminder of a dark time in their lives? Or a time when they turned a corner and were able to spread inspiration and hope to others who need it?
Ethical storytelling is at the heart of nonprofit communication. By obtaining consent, respecting boundaries, being transparent, involving subjects and embracing cultural sensitivity, nonprofits can weave narratives that inspire and empower. It’s important to remember that the true heroes of these stories are the individuals who have triumphed over adversity. By honoring their resilience while showcasing organizational work, it’s possible to build trust and forge deep connections—to tell stories that raise awareness and support and contribute to healing.
Want more tips on storytelling for your nonprofit? Register for our Storytelling for Impact webinar!