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Storytelling is a powerful tool. It not only connects our donors with the individuals we are serving. It also allows those we serve to see themselves reflected in the stories of others. It gives real-life examples that can live alongside quantitative data. Long story-short, storytelling connects our work in meaningful, transformational ways to our community members. It is a powerful tool that, when used with an equity and justice lens, can honor the stories and experiences of those you serve and invite others into your movement or organization. 

However, when equity and justice are not considered and applied, when the focus of storytelling is simply to raise more funds or “awareness,” (which is often coded language for raising more money), we can harm those we purport to serve. This practice further conditions donors to the idea that they should respond primarily to feelings of sympathy and saviorism.

My experience with this balance around ethical – and equitable – storytelling is not just from a fundraiser and consultant, but also from a person with my own lived experience. 

In my first nonprofit role as a Development Manager, I worked closely with our Marketing Manager on our quarterly newsletter. We would comb through information about the families the organization served, hoping to find the perfect content to hook our readers and drive donations. We were rewarded when our collaborative efforts paid off – measured by dollars received, press opportunities secured, and increased online engagement. One spring, we highlighted the story of a local mom whose faith community was on our mailing list. Upon seeing her story, the church reached out to understand what more they could do to support her and our work. Though she agreed to an interview and knew we were highlighting her journey in our newsletter, she expressed embarrassment and shame when it seemed like her experience was simply being used to raise money. Indeed, we had crafted a narrative that didn’t highlight her strength, generosity or resilience, and in doing so, we caused harm. 

About five years into my nonprofit career, I found myself on the other side of the table. Shortly after the birth of my son, I suffered and survived a rare postpartum complication called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). A quick google search conducted by my aunt revealed very little information about my condition other than memorial posts and mortality narratives in medical journals. At the age of 28, I had become a new mom and a medical miracle. It came as no surprise when I was invited to share my story at a health organization’s gala less than a year later. 

I was excited to share my experience and raise awareness with the hope that other women might not have to experience what I did. And honestly, I thought I was excited to use what happened to me for “good.” That evening, the organization showed a video (that I had viewed in advance) of my husband telling the story of how we met, my pregnancy and my complication. Standing backstage, I could hear the audible sobs of the audience who believed I had died when the video concluded. My husband and infant son took the stage and “surprised” the audience by introducing me. I did my best to deliver my remarks in a compelling way and overall the evening was a financial success. However, I was hit with the reality that the organization had manipulated a room full of donors and used my story and my trauma in a way that was not true to my experience. Following that night, I knew then that I would never allow my pain to be used in that way again: perhaps to the detriment of causes who could have told my story with more care. 

In my time as a consultant, I have sat with dozens of organizations’ fund development and marketing departments as they pitch ideas and stories that could compel paddles to raise or online donations to flow. Storytelling is powerful and important, but when we consider other people’s stories, I ask that you consider the following things:

Practices for Ethical/Kind/Responsible Storytelling

Someone granting you the opportunity to share their story is a gift to your organization. It should be treated as such and handled with care. In doing so, it is important to remember the following things:

  • Obtain their permission and consent to share their story. Make sure they understand how it will be used and what you anticipate happening from its use. Also, ensure their privacy, especially when it comes to minors, abuse victims or health information.
  • Allow them to tell their story the way they want it to be told. You can advise on length or format, but this is not the time for you to serve as tone police or shape the narrative into something it is not. 
  • Avoid stereotypes and perpetuation of white saviorism. Too often in our work, in an attempt to capture the attention of distracted donors, we try to create narratives that drive a greater sense of empathy and might spur donors to act. Those narratives are not reflective of the whole person whose story you should feel honored to be telling and thus, can create harm. 

“Poverty Porn” Doesn’t Raise More Money

In non-profit fundraising and communication, “poverty porn” is any type of media or storytelling that exploits a person’s condition (whether it be financial, health, et cetera) to generate the necessary sympathy for gaining supporters to a given cause. After 15 years raising tens of millions of dollars for non-profit organizations all over the country, I can say with complete certainty that engaging in this behavior is harmful to the subjects, and it will not solve your fundraising challenges. 

While from time to time, it might create a surge of revenue (but even that is rarer than you think), it does not create long-term committed donors and it will not allow you to more effectively serve the population on which your mission focuses. Furthermore, this work will require you to be more and more dramatic to garner the same amount of attention from your donors. 

If we instead focus on telling true stories, intentionally connecting donors with the work, and naming the systems and practices that have created harm for those we serve, we can better create long-term relationships with our donors that sustain our work. 

Although the harm created by poverty porn might be unintentional, the impact is real. It is time to deconstruct the “we serve them” narrative and instead consider how we can bring supporters and those we serve together to fix the broken systems that perpetuate harm to our most marginalized communities. 

Compensate Your Lived Experience Expert 

When we ask someone to share their story, we are asking them to relive their trauma – publicly – for the benefit of the organization. While many, if not most, people you serve are eager to support your organization and cause, it is imperative that we recognize the sacrifice they are making. I could not more highly recommend that you include stipends for your storytellers in your marketing budget

As nonprofits continue their important work across our communities, we must do our best to share the stories of our clients, neighbors and stakeholders with the care and dignity we would give to our dearest loved ones. If we are willing to commit to ethical and equitable storytelling, we open new doors for those eager to be in relationship with and expand our impact.

In 2015, Rachel founded Gladiator Consulting, a boutique consultancy with a holistic approach to nonprofit organizational development. Through Gladiator, Rachel has combined her knowledge of Organizational Culture & Fund Development with her deep personal commitment to centering community, seeking justice and creating belonging for those who have been disenfranchised or targeted by institutions, systems and policy.

To learn more about Rachel’s commitment and work, read her full bio.

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