Today’s guest post on ethical nonprofit storytelling is from Caliopy Glaros. Caliopy is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Philanthropy Without Borders, a firm with expertise in ethical storytelling, donor engagement, and strategic planning. This article was originally published on her blog. You can learn more in her training in The Nonprofit Academy called “Ethical Nonprofit Storytelling: From Exploitation to Empathy.” 

The Diagram of Ethical Storytelling Excellence

by Caliopy Glaros of Philanthropy Without Borders

This is one of those stories we tell ourselves: That fundraising staff and program staff are not aligned in storytelling.

There is a perception that the fundraising staff prioritize the needs of donors, wanting to overly focus on the negative aspects of clients’ lives and commodify their stories into “assets” for the annual appeal.

And then there is a perception that program staff, who work more closely with clients and know things about their lives and circumstances that can only be known through time and trust, are too protective of their clients’ identities and stories; so careful and cautious that they prevent stories from getting out and impede the fundraising efforts.

The story is that the fundraising staff and program staff just can’t see eye-to-eye.
Ethical Storytelling Diagram of the nonprofit fundraising staff totally separate from the nonprofit program staff
This dichotomy is certainly false, but the tension is real. I do encounter these beliefs in organizations large and small, but I’m here to tell you that there is always, always overlap.
Ethical Storytelling Diagram of nonprofit fundraising staff overlapping with nonprofit program staff

First, we can recognize that both our roles depend on trust and the relationships we cultivate. For program staff, their primary relationships are with clients, and for fundraising staff, our primary relationships are with donors.Second, both roles harness the power of stories, we just use those stories in different ways. Program staff may be using stories to teach, to advocate, or to inspire, while fundraising staff use stories to do… well, actually the same thing. See, we don’t use stories to raise money, we use stories to teach, to advocate, and to inspire, and philanthropy is the natural consequence of someone feeling inspired.Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that many organizations have clients who donate – which makes them donors too! And some of our donors may share lived experiences with our clients, if we only take the time to learn this about them.There is always overlap. But the overlap in our roles or motivations is not what’s important. What matters in ethical storytelling is the overlap in what compels our donors to give, and how your clients or story contributors want their stories told.
Overlapping circles representing the mid-section of where what compels donors to give nonprofit gifts meets how your donors want their stories gold

What Compels Donors to Give or Engage

We must tell stories in a way that resonates with our donors, but that doesn’t mean it should come at the expense of our clients’ dignity.

While some people may think a photo of a crying child is more likely to elicit funds than one of a smiling child, this has not been proven in research. Even some of the most robust studies contradict one another or provide inconclusive results. “What” compels donors to give cannot be reduced to a dirty tear-streaked face, or stories of profound hardship. Trying to measure donor motivations in A/B marketing tests is challenging and we are often not able to draw concrete conclusions as to why some campaigns were marginally more successful than others. But when researchers actually ask donors what they want, here is what they say:

  1. To feel seen, heard, and valued
  2. To know their gift will make a difference
  3. To feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

Is that really at odds with the dignity of our clients? It doesn’t have to be, as long as we are making sure to tell stories the way our clients want them told.

How Your Story Contributors Want Their Stories Told

How do our contributors want their stories told? How do they want to be understood and remembered by audiences? It is impossible for you to answer that question for them. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a process of securing feedback from our clients to ensure that we are telling stories that are true, that honor them, and that hold our organizations accountable. You must get feedback from your clients. You must treat them as collaborators and co-authors in your storytelling process. My articles on feedback gathering, interviewing, and editing are good places to start.

A Venn diagram showing how to create an ethical nonprofit storytelling strategy

© Philanthropy Without Borders

Your (and Your Organization’s) Identity and Strengths

Finally, there is one more piece of this diagram, which is your own identity and strengths as a storyteller, as well as that of your organization.

You are the filter through which the stories get told, the microphone that amplifies the messages. How is your identity or experience situated in regards to the communities reflected in your stories? And what about your organization as a whole? Who is represented in your organization? What is your organization’s relationship to the communities you partner with?

One challenge the nonprofit sector has is the disconnect between the experiences of its staff in the fundraising and marketing offices, and those of the people reflected in the stories they tell. There are staff who have never experienced hunger, displacement, or war, and are telling stories about people who have.

We do need to commit to recruiting more staff from our client populations, but those efforts will not replace the importance of gathering client feedback, nor will they replace efforts that we (I mean all humans) should invest in maintaining awareness around our own biases, assumptions, and the limits of our own experiences. And… I also don’t want you to see these very normal human things as deficits to your character or to your job. Instead of being afraid of what we lack or of what we don’t know, we can reframe our enhanced self-awareness, self-skepticism, and self-accountability as a strength.

Asking “How do I know what I wrote is true?” holds our work to a higher standard, and lets us know when we need to seek out more information to strengthen our stories. Asking, “What is influencing my perspective?” enhances your self-awareness and allows you to de-center yourself from the story. What we need is:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Curiosity
  3. A willingness to be changed by what we learn.

These are incredibly powerful skills (I view them as skills, not values or traits, because we have to actively practice them in order to claim to embody them). We are not born with these skills – they are learned and cultivated over time. Celebrate these strengths and leverage them to do good work.

As for your organization, if it does not have representation from the client population, or is not client-led, or client-driven, ask what you can do to amplify the voices of partners, or how you can become more client-led. Also ask how, as an organization, you can embody the practices of self-awareness (awareness of how your organization is situated within the community and how it is perceived by that community), as well as openness to client feedback, and willingness to change and adapt.

Your storytelling strategy lies clearly at the intersection of these three elements: what compels donors to engage, how contributors want their stories told, and the strengths you bring to your role.

If you want more like this, check out Caliopy’s training on ethical storytelling in the Nonprofit Academy called: “From Exploitation to Empathy.” 

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