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We marketers preach it constantly: Nonprofits need to tell their stories if they want to attract and engage stakeholders.

You’ll hear the same thing echoed in nonprofit boardrooms around the world. “How do we showcase our impact so we can grow to help more people?”

Yet, in our urgency to tell stories, we must never lose track of what matters most: the people behind them–the human beings who’ve gone through emotional, even traumatic experiences to come out stronger on the other side.

When you think about it, nonprofit marketers (with the best intentions) ask a lot from our story subjects. We ask them to bare their souls to perfect strangers and to condense powerful experiences into bite-sized highlights for an annual report or social media post so we can demonstrate our impact and tug on the heartstrings of our stakeholders. (Because we know from research that donors want and expect storytelling if they are to keep contributing to our cause.)

That may be why entire organizations are devoted to ethical storytelling: the art of telling stories in a way that places the dignity, comfort, privacy and well-being of our subjects over the needs of our organizations.

In a previous post, we listed 10 tips for ethical storytelling. Today, we’ll build on those concepts by going into more detail into the process—from arranging the first interview to posting on the web. Let’s dive in.


Ethical storytelling tips: Things to consider before the first interview or write-up.

1. Build a relationship with your interviewee. When it comes down to discussing deeply personal matters—such as a struggle with homelessness, addiction or abuse—a little human connection goes a long way. Whether it’s a friendly phone call or taking your interviewee out for coffee, establishing a rapport will not only make your subject more comfortable, but result in a more relaxed and productive conversation.

2. Set boundaries and protect identities. As discussed in our previous post, by now you should have already gained your subject’s express consent. You’ve hopefully also been transparent about the purpose of your story and where the content will be featured (e.g., Facebook, your website or your annual report). Additionally, you’ve even reminded them that what goes on the internet stays on the internet and could come back to appear later in their lives.

But those are just the initial steps. Here are some other things to consider:

  • Is your interviewee comfortable with their real name being shared?
  • What about their image? Would they prefer to be blurred or maybe have their back turned to the camera? Do they want to be filmed at all? Provide them the option to choose how their story will be captured.
  • If being filmed or recorded, is your interviewee okay with their voice possibly being recognized?
  • Are there certain topics they would prefer to avoid? Let them know it’s okay to pass on any of the questions.

3. Provide a list of questions in advance. Give plenty of notice, and again, tell your subject they are free to pass on anything or make suggestions. During the interview, try not to throw any curve balls—unless your interviewee seems very comfortable or eager to talk about issues that weren’t arranged ahead of time.

4. Do your research. It’s a good idea to gain some perspective on the issues your subject has dealt with. This will not only make for a more productive interview but prepare you to be fluent—and above all, sensitive and aware—around issues being discussed.


During the interview

1. Make it a conversation. During an interview, it’s easy to get distracted by what you’re going to ask next. To avoid this, try to focus on active listening. Treat the interview more like a conversation with a close friend. Follow the flow of the discussion rather than thinking about what comes next. You’ll make your subject more comfortable, glean added perspective and ask better more leading questions.

2. End with an open question. Sometimes asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to say or anything we didn’t talk about?” is the best way to get an interviewee to sum up their thoughts or feelings on a topic. It’s also a great way to give them more input into the story’s direction. Use this question to your advantage at every opportunity.


After the interview (while creating your story)

1. Give them the chance to review.  Even if you’re using your subject’s words verbatim, it’s never safe to assume you’ve captured the essence of a story accurately. (Being interviewed has a way of causing mental blocks and mistakes.) Allow them to make comments, suggestions or changes before you create a final draft.

2. Avoid portraying subjects as victims who needed to be saved. Your organization probably made a tremendous difference in someone’s outcome. This seems obvious, but don’t forget that your story should focus on how you empowered your subject to be their own difference-maker—not just the role you played as the hero. Make sure you look for this in your stories, because it’s easy to interject accidentally.

As we embark on the journey of impactful storytelling in the nonprofit sector, it’s important to keep the individuals behind the stories at the forefront of our minds. Ethical storytelling demands that we build genuine connections, respect boundaries and empower subjects to shape their narratives. Involving people in the storytelling process becomes an act of collaboration, fostering trust and empowerment.

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