The need for responsible storytelling

I have a confession to make. I am no longer a fundraising professional, but I find myself continuing to care deeply about the ethics of raising money through the stories of program participants. Since leaving the world of fundraising, I have worked in digital marketing and am now in graduate school for public policy, but I just can’t leave it behind. Here’s why:

Humanity is something dominant narratives take away from marginalized groups , and the way a lot of nonprofits tell stories to raise money only perpetuates this.

When I would start working at a new organization, I made a point to do an audit of past direct mail appeals and other collateral or messages shared with donors to acquaint myself. I often found myself thinking, “If the person in this story saw this appeal, would they be okay with how they are portrayed?” And I always strived to have the answer to that question be “yes” for the materials I created and the stories I shared. The idea of writing or creating a story with someone, rather than about them, makes a huge difference.

Narratives have a lot of power.

I don’t just mean for donors. They have a lot of power period. The people who have the luxury of shaping narratives about groups of people, especially those who are marginalized, have a huge responsibility to ask themselves hard questions about how they are contributing to these narratives. Are you being helpful or harmful? If nonprofits really want to create positive change in the world, and I believe they do, they need to be aware of messages they share and what impact they might have beyond meeting a fundraising goal.

Shifting the stories and messages you share might sound daunting, but you can take it in small steps.

I wholeheartedly believe it doesn’t have to be hard work to do this, but it will require persistence, reflection, and self-awareness. Here are three steps you can take this week or this month to get started:

  1. Conduct a story audit. Decide whether you want to focus on mailed pieces or social media, and create a table where you consider things like who the story is about, the program area or topic, what message is being shared, what tone is being used, what images are utilized. Seeing this information for a collection of stories you share can be really enlightening and help you identify areas where you can make changes to tell more ethical, asset-based stories.
  2. Create an audience profile. Do this for each donor group. Write down your assumptions, and then try to collect some data to test these assumptions. Next, create a profile for each segment that includes their goals, motivations, and the best content for them.
  3. Brainstorm your dream message and story ideas based on what you’ve discovered in steps 1 and 2. Create a plan to make at least one of them happen! Once you have success with that one, you’ll be able to slowly chip away at this and influence the culture of storytelling in your organization.

The road to telling powerful stories that help you raise money and don’t exploit or perpetuate negative narratives about marginalized groups of people won’t always be easy. But as nonprofit professionals, I believe we have an obligation to start and maintain the journey. I’ve said a lot of things people might not agree with, and definitely simplified the process for the purpose of this blog post so I am happy to continue conversations if this sparks interest for anyone!

Some of my favorite resources to inspire and support you include:

Vanessa Chase Lockshin of The Storytelling Nonprofit

Abesha Shiferaw from Rainier Valley Corps who wrote an incredible blog post about stories and exploitation

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