Proposals for doing nonprofit storytelling more ethically

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This blog was originally published by the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities (YNPN-TC).

As I discussed in my earlier blog, I chose to do my final research for my strategic communication MA on the need for ethical/equitable storytelling practices for communicators due to questions that have come up during my career about the power and responsibility I hold as a nonprofit communicator. When I’ve talked to other communicators, I found others who (like me) have an uneasy feeling about the way our sector takes an individual’s words and story, repackages it, and then uses it as a story of our organization’s success. However, as I’ve had these conversations, I have found that many of these individuals are no more certain than me about what to do about this. How can we create the types of short and tight stories and messages we need in today’s fast-past social media world while also sharing everything an individual wants in a story? Additionally, even if we are convinced, how can we get buy-in from our supervisors and organizations?

As I dug deeper into the issue, I was able to identify several key concerns all communicators should consider in their work. I have shared some of these concerns (and proposed work practices to respond) here. One thing this blog is not is a simple checklist to follow the next time you write a story. As individuals wishing to create connection, we must be willing to approach each individual and storytelling experience as a unique situation. This will mean we can set aside our preconceived ideas of the “perfect story” so that we can listen to and understand the story the individual wants to share, instead.

Understand the power dynamics of storytelling

Communicators must be conscious of the power dynamic that exists when we ask an individual to share their personal story. As it is currently done in many organizations, nonprofit storytelling means a communicator is taking the words and experiences of another individual and using them for their organization’s benefit. 

The ethics of approaching current or past clients for stories is of particular concern. Communicators must be aware that, as explained by the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, some clients may feel “implicit pressure to share their stories” due to receiving money/services from the organization and others “may assume that they earn ‘special status’ or privileges in exchange for sharing their story with or on behalf of the organization.”

In my research, I found organizations took differing approaches to respond to this concern. One organization has firm rules against approaching current/past clients, instead choosing to only use stories from published authors. Others stated they purposely have barriers regarding when and how clients could be approached. Some only allow clients to be approached after they have completed the program; others require that the initial ask and/or interview be done by a program/direct service staff member who already has a relationship with the client.

Proposal: Communicators should always expressly address this power dynamic when asking individuals if they are willing to be interviewed. They should state it is the individual’s choice, and (for current or past clients) they should state the organization will continue to support the individual either way. When doing this, some communicators find clients to be willing (or even eager!) to share their story, as they feel it is their way to give back and help others. Other times clients say no.

There isn’t one correct answer for all organizations to take, so it is important for communicators to have conversations with their program/direct service staff (and hopefully clients) to make  decisions based on the unique needs and circumstances of their community. Organizations must also consider the equally complex question of whether to pay individuals for sharing their story (read the Philanthropy Without Borders blog explaining both sides of this debate).

It is a standard practice for nonprofits to ask individuals to sign a consent form whenever they wish to publicly use their photo, name, or story publicly. This is the full extent of the conversation about consent in many organizations. This is a problematic, however, as these forms exist to protect the organization rather than the individual.

Proposal:  Communicators must understand that obtaining consent is about more than just covering their organization’s legal liability (this being the primary or sole function of the existing consent forms). Nonprofit communicators should follow “deep consent” practices to ensure individuals are informed about all aspects of the storytelling process. This means having repeated in-depth conversations with the individual regarding:

  • Why the organization wishes to share their story, how it will be shared (online versus in print, for example), and how many people will see the story, generally.
  • How (or if) the person wishes to be identified in the story and what information they want to be included or excluded.
  • What opportunities the individual will have to review and edit the story before it is published. 
  • How the individual can withdraw their consent—whether that is before or during the interview, before the story is published, or after it is released. Many organizations committed to “deep consent” additionally have processes to check in with individuals yearly to ask if they still want their story shared.
  • What dangers exist from one’s story being shared publicly, particularly in an online environment where it could easily be re-shared and spread in ways the individual and organization may not expect.

I do caution that communicators will need time to consider how they will record these agreements as there could be complexity when an organization does not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Communicators and organizations will need to either adjust their consent forms or plan a long-term system for saving and referencing the details of each of these agreements, and this system will need to continue to be available after the individual communicator moves on from the organization.

Examine and understand your personal bias and privilege

Finally, to the vast majority of communicators who (like me) are white college-educated professionals, I must add that it is essential that we each consider our own biases and internalized white supremacy, how they shape our choices and communications, and whether you are the right person to write a story. As white professionals, we must understand that we can never fully screen out or unlearn all of our biases and privilege, no matter how well-intentioned or aware we think we are.This means there are experiences we simply cannot understand or accurately portray. 

Proposal: Communicators and organizations should consider their capacity to hire a freelancer to ensure an individual’s story is written by someone who truly understands and values the person’s lived experiences. At a minimum, communicators must form authentic relationships so they can ask an informed third-party (preferably someone with a shared identity as the individual) to review their interview questions and story draft for concerns, mistakes, or bias.

In conclusion

Ultimately, we must shift our thinking within the nonprofit community so that we consider storytelling to be a partnership between the communicator and the individual where their wishes and best interests are paramount. This partnership must begin from the start of the process rather than thinking of storytelling as a single interview, conversation, or consent form. Simply put, as communicators, we must remember that the words and experiences we are using are not our own, and that means the stories we share are not either.

Other resources

I have only been able to discuss some of the largest overarching themes I found in my research in this blog. If you wish to read more, you can find the full list of my recommendations in my research brief (and the linked complete paper and video presentation). I would be happy to further discuss ethical storytelling or issues communicators face, so feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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