Where Do You Stand? The Hottest Issues in Storytelling Ethics Today

Nonprofits have come a long way in our understanding of the potential harm that can be done by exploitative fundraising campaigns.  However, we still struggle with certain storytelling practices.   I’ve curated a list of the three hottest topics in ethical storytelling right now and presented both sides of each argument.

How you should proceed with each issue depends on your organization, on the people you are helping, and on who is funding your work. The important thing is to evaluate each issue and decide intentionally where your organization stands.

Issue #1:  To pay people for their stories…or not

Many nonprofits do not pay people to share their stories of transformation with the organization. Beyond gaining consent to share our program participants’ stories and photos, should you go one step further and pay them?

The Argument For:

The stories you’re telling are directly connected to financial benefits for organizations. It’s only right those same funds benefit them as well.”
Abesha Shiferaw for NTEN

This person has given you their time and perspective—which is something of value. You are earning money from their contribution, so shouldn’t they be compensated in return? This practice has been particularly espoused where we see nonprofits staffed by dominant groups who are working with marginalized communities. Asking people from marginalized communities to do something or free—something that benefits people of a dominant group—perpetuates inequality.

The Argument Against:

Stories are like reviews and testimonials. It is a statement that your organization is doing what it is supposed to do. We wouldn’t trust a product if we found out all the positive reviews were paid for by the company. We wouldn’t trust a service provider if we found out that they paid people to provide glowing testimonials. Paid stories may not seem credible.

Also, paying people in some cultural contexts can be interpreted as a bribe and has the potential to create more of an exploitative situation than it solves. Program participants may feel even more pressure to share positive stories (regardless of their concerns for privacy or the reality of their situations) if money is involved. The standard of ethics in journalism is not to pay people for their stories. As the New York Times’s ethics policy puts it, “We do not pay for interviews or unpublished documents: to do so would create an incentive for sources to falsify material….” However, it is worth noting that journalism is not fundraising – though they may share common goals to educate and inform.

Issue #2: To use the Case Example…or not

The Case Example is a generic story that simply and quickly sums up the impact of your organization. The protagonist is a nonexistent person—someone who is based on a common situation you address. Most organizations implement a number of interventions to complex issues such as poverty, war, crime, etc. Rather than explain all your interventions and share impact through data, the case examples allows you to tell a story about one person in a problem-solution-result format that can be easily understood by donors. An example may look like this:

James (not his real name) came to our program because he could not feed his family. With no paying work in the village and little agricultural opportunity, James did not have a way to make money and buy food. We gave James five chickens so he could sell eggs in the local market, providing his family with a vital source of income. Because of our program, James can now afford to buy food for his family and is even sending his oldest child to school.

The Argument For:

The case example protects identities, is easy to tell, is memorable, and clearly illustrates the work of your organization. Communication gurus will tell you to use this case example as your elevator pitch instead of your mission statement or founding story (since the latter two can be uninspiring or quite long). It also helps to have what marketers call “an evergreen story” that doesn’t need to be edited or revised with changing times, and one that all staff—even non-fundraisers—can remember and articulate with ease.

Deborah Small and George Loewenstein, scholars at Carnegie Mellon University, also support telling stories with an individual over general depictions of a circumstance, as they mentioned in the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World:

“People react differently toward identifiable victims than to statistical victims who have not yet been identified. Specific victims of misfortune often draw extraordinary attention and resources. But, it is often difficult to draw attention to, or raise money for, interventions that would prevent people from becoming victims in the first place.”

That is why we created “James,” even though “James” represents an entire village of people or multiple interventions that catalyzed change. James is identifiable and easy to remember.

The Argument Against:

In the case example, we haven’t done much to educate the audience on the systemic factors involved. We don’t even know where James lives and what unique factors are influencing the distribution of resources in his locality. Why is James (or those in his community) in need of help in the first place? Few would argue that a case example of this vagueness and brevity is effective in educating audiences on inequality and the role our organizations play in systemic change.

It’s also not inspiring empathy between the listener and the beneficiary. “James” is so generic, without character, context, history, and hope beyond the primal human need to survive. We can’t relate to James’s struggle or understand what factors are causing his dire circumstance. This case example runs the risk of oversimplifying our work, dehumanizing the people in our programs, and ignoring powerful social influences. 

Issue #3: To use donor-centric language…or not

Donor-centric language includes best practices like using the word “you” as much as possible in our messaging, thanking and recognizing our donors in unique ways, and otherwise making them feel like heroes. Many fundraising professionals have had the concept of “donor-centric language” instilled in us as the best way to communicate with donors and raise money.

The Argument For:

A 2017 New York Times article, “How to Get the Wealthy to Donate,” cited decades of research showing that wealthy people respond better to communications that praise them. They also think in individualistic ways (at least in the United States) and are not as moved to help when  group effort is emphasized over individual achievement. The author sums it up by saying:

By suggesting that charities might cater to wealthier people’s conception of themselves, our research may seem to miss the moral point of charity. But as the behavioral scientist Christopher Bryan has said, ‘We’re often so focused on getting people to do the right thing for what we think is the right reason, we forget we just need to get them to do the right thing…Rather than trying to make others see the world the way we do, it may be more effective to meet them where they are.”

From an intercultural lens, this is an effective method. Humans have a variety of ways they want to be engaged. So if we want to engage them effectively, we need to treat them the way they want to be treated. I wrote about that at length in my article, Respect and Dignity are Not Enough.

The Argument Against:

Centering the donor has the ability to perpetuate the same ideologies that contribute to inequality in the first place. By using language that centers the donor’s ego, we isolate them from the people whose lives they are trying to impact, downplay the role of our nonprofit, and ignore the community’s own agency and resilience. While this language may seem harmless in a direct mail campaign, it could lead to more exploitative interactions among the donor, the nonprofit, and the community.

“Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity,” Bruno Giussani, curator of TED talks, said. A person of means, seeing poverty, can write a check and reduce that poverty. “But inequality,” Giussani said, “you can’t [address it via charity] because inequality is not about giving back. Inequality is about how you make the money that you’re giving back in the first place.”

To read more about my take on donor-centric language, check out my article “Donor-Centric Language: Efficacy and Ethics.”

It is important that you know where you personally stand on each issue and have a dialogue with the people in your organization so that other views and perspectives can surface.

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