| 5 min read

Powerful and Ethical Nonprofit Storytelling

Most nonprofit organizations have only the best intentions for the communities they serve. However, when it comes to their process of telling the stories of their constituents, they often unintentionally fall short of being effective and respectful.

When creating an impact story to inspire prospective donors to become involved, nonprofits must be mindful of their approach. There is a delicate balance between telling the story in a way that sparks successful fundraising and accidentally offending community members or triggering donors. 

With that being said, it’s understandable how impact stories can sometimes go sideways from the original intention. After all, as nonprofits, we want our donors to see the injustices, pain, and trauma that have been experienced, so they gain a full image of why their time, money, and resources are needed. 

In the process of relaying this information, nonprofits may inadvertently disregard how their chosen approach makes their constituents feel. At the same time, they may be unaware of how the information they are relaying may negatively impact potential donors, resulting in unforeseen and negative outcomes. 

Together, we will discuss the definition of Ethical Storytelling and the simple steps that can be taken to ensure your nonprofit is diligent in respecting all stakeholders. 

How to Approach Ethical Storytelling:

  • What is Ethical Storytelling?
  • How to Produce Ethical Storytelling
    • Approach With Respect
    • Allow Anonymity
    • Offer a Trigger Warning
    • Highlight the Survivor’s Bravery
  • Final Insight

What is Ethical Storytelling?

As defined by The Berkeley Group, “Ethical storytelling refers to this active practice of ensuring that [nonprofit organizations] NPO marketing and storytelling is inclusive of both the viewpoints of the constituents and the donors, so they can achieve both goals of serving their constituents through receiving funding while respecting the human dignity of their constituents.”

Essentially, it is the responsibility of nonprofit organizations to tell stories that allow constituents to maintain their sense of dignity. In addition, it is essential for nonprofits to prevent their story from becoming so raw that it is potentially triggering to donors.

How to Produce Ethical Storytelling

In an article written by EJUSA, it was discussed how the treatment of victims after a traumatic event prevents them from regaining their dignity. Survivor and founder of Urban Grief, Lisa Good, brings to light how many victims are treated like criminals themselves or their aftercare doesn’t allow them to feel the respect they deserve.

The article states, “Over the course of 18 years of doing this work, and informed by the trauma [Lisa has] survived plus her training and expertise on the traumatic impact of violence, Lisa has zeroed in on some fundamental needs that all survivors should get: care, dignity, and respect. It seems so simple, and yet so often reality tells a far different story.”

We can use insight from survivors such as Lisa Good to gauge how we should approach Ethical Storytelling. First, put yourself in the shoes of your constituents and reflect on how you would want your story to be retold if you had been in their place. Then, place yourself in the position of your contributors from all walks of life. What amount of information would be inspiring without being overly triggering? 

Creating the perfect impact story is a balancing act, but you can do it! Check out my top tips for creating an impact story that gives the right type of information without being triggering or disrespectful.

  • Approach with Respect

When you reach the rising action or climax of your story, consider withholding information that is more explicit or disturbing. Remember, you paint an accurate picture without giving every grueling detail that may disturb your contributors rather than inspire them.

Furthermore, while telling an impact story, it can be tempting to mix in our own personal opinions on the actions or mindset of the survivor. Withhold your own opinions as they may influence what contributors believe, and you wouldn’t want to accidentally offend your constituents. 

  • Allow Anonymity 

This may go without being said, but try to avoid giving away the real names and identifying information about the subjects of your stories. In many cases, survivors would like to share their stories without the outside attention of having their names exposed.

Even if your constituents offer to have their identity revealed, it’s best that you maintain their anonymity. There’s no better way to prevent other survivors from joining forces with your nonprofit than if they think they will be exposed or “outed.”

  • Offer a Trigger Warning

For anyone who hasn’t suffered a defining traumatic event in their life, it may be difficult to understand why someone would need a trigger warning. It may also be hard to understand what a trigger warning is exactly and how it benefits those receiving it.

“Trigger warnings ensure that people are not suddenly confronted with triggers that may render them unable to focus and severely affect their state of mind” (Feminism in Media). By giving a gracious and subtle trigger warning at the beginning of your story, you are allowing your donors to adjust their mindset and prepare for the information they are about to receive.

Some donors may not feel upset by explicit content of someone else’s traumatic life or event. However, anyone who may have suffered their own traumas in life will greatly appreciate the heads up before they are exposed to a heavy impact story.

  • Highlight the Survivor’s Bravery

When retelling someone’s traumatic event or life, try to maintain a hopeful tone throughout the arch and end of your impact story. Furthermore, you can build a closer bond with your constituents by including facts about their bravery and how they persevere.

By taking these steps, you will give potential donors inspiration to become involved with your nonprofit and existing contributors a renewed sense of purpose. In addition, this approach is a wonderful way to solidify your nonprofit’s bond with your constituents. 

Final Insight

While we want to approach storytelling in an ethical way that also ensures our contributors receive the impression we are trying to relay, it’s important to remember that not everyone can be appeased. First and foremost, make sure you are taking care of your constituents through the methods you use to relay their inspirational impact story.

As we cannot account for every trigger, nonprofits should simply try their best to tell impact stories in an ethical way while giving contributors a warning. Although it is important to ensure story receivers are considered, it is also essential to not water down the survivor’s story resulting in a less impactful picture. 

Want More Information on Storytelling – Watch the Replays from this Virtual DonorPerfect Conference! 

DonorPerfect is a fundraising growth platform dedicated to helping nonprofits achieve their donation and donor retention goals. In 2022, DonorPerfect decided to focus its Community Conference on the power of storytelling and I was thrilled to be the opening speaker. 

In these free virtual sessions, you will learn how to spark passion within the hearts of your donors through your nonprofit story. Furthermore, DonorPerfect taught us all about how to analyze data and utilize digital tools to assist us in formulating the perfect story and adapting it to various audiences. 

Watch the replay of my segment “Does Your Organization Tell the Right Story to the Right Audience?” HERE. Then, check out the replays from the other valuable sessions that pique your interest! 

Let’s Stay Connected!

The success of your nonprofit depends on how well your nonprofit story appeals to your potential donors and volunteers. Showing contributors that they belong in the picture with your nonprofit is a surefire way to retain donors and build a long-lasting organization.

I’m deeply passionate about helping nonprofits navigate relationships with donors and achieving strong and beneficial connections. For ongoing information about today’s best practices in running a nonprofit, join me at What the Fundraising and follow my Blog for more insight into how to approach effective relationship building with constituents and donors!

For more of my favorite fundraising tips and tricks, check out my Resource page! Here, you can find relevant articles, webinars, quizzes, etc. about fundraising in the nonprofit sector. In addition, you can subscribe to What the Fundraising for ongoing conversations about how you can fundamentally change the way you lead and fundraise. And to learn how to raise more from the right funders using the Power Partners Formula, you are always welcome to join one of my free Masterclasses at malloryerickson.com/free.

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