Ethical storytelling is not just about good stewardship in acquisition (interviewing)—often the biggest blunders occur behind the scenes: in the editorial process.
Of all the steps, this stage of the process can truly be ridden with disasters, where a story can be appropriated into something the contributor never intended. Take a look at some examples:
“A friend of mine was asked to be the client speaker at a nonprofit organization’s fundraising event recently. She is an educated, compassionate, funny woman raising an equally smart and compassionate son. She wrote a beautiful speech that shared the story of her family, their triumphs, and how this organization helped them navigate a challenging moment. When she got edits back, the speech had been stripped of her individuality and personal successes. And language had been added to suggest she had not been helped by the organization, but rather saved by it.”
– Kate Marple (“5 Ways for Nonprofits to Tell an Ethical Story,” Nonprofit Quarterly, October 22, 2014)
“I thought I had consented to being edited with thoughtfulness and consideration—not having my work completely decimated and stripped of its essence by a vicious all-white editing team… I also did not expect the complete silencing and utter erasure of my voice.”
– Yolanda Contreras (“Can Anybody Hear Me? How White Nonprofit Writing Standards Erase BIPOC Voices—and Why That Is Definitely Not OK,” Community-Centric Fundraising, November 30, 2020)
Ideally, your editing team should reflect people from different backgrounds, including those who share identities and expertise with your program participants.
But…what if it doesn’t? Or what if your editing team is…just you?
Here is a process I recommend to ensure accountability to the contributor and to honor the story in the way they would want it told.
Take the long-form version of the contributor’s story (that has been edited into, say, a campaign letter or blog post) and complete this litmus test courtesy of Freddie Boswell from Nonprofit Quarterly (Ethical Storytelling Webinar, 2020).
Don’t ask: “Would I be happy with this story if it was about me?” (This is a prime example of sympathy, not empathy—see my article.)
Do ask: “Would I be happy listening to the story while sitting next to the person it is about?”
If you would feel uncomfortable reading the story aloud while the contributor is in the room, it’s time to evaluate why and make some hard adjustments.
The next step is to actually read the story aloud while the contributor is in the room. Why? Because we can only hypothesize about others for so long and because their feedback is vitally important. Ask the contributor these two questions:
- Do you still hear your own voice in this story?
- Is there anything you don’t like or want to change about it?
Now, here is the important question to ask yourself: are you willing to change the story based on their feedback? This is an important part about committing to ethical storytelling. If they don’t want to be referred to as “at-risk,” then don’t use that term. If they don’t want you talking about their daughter, remove that section. If they don’t like the photo you selected, offer another option.
However, some of their feedback may present challenges to the fundraising purpose of the story. We know that a campaign letter of 15 pages long is not going to be very effective in compelling donors to give, and so, if your contributor says: “Why did you leave out all the details about my grandfather’s life during the war, and my mother’s birth, and my own life from birth until adulthood?” you could respond: “We wanted to focus the story on you and the most important moments in your life from recent years. Are there specific details from your family history that you want us to include?”
You could also reach a compromise, where you publish a long-form story digitally but send out a more concise version through mail.
That’s just one example of the team-minded approach to feedback and what possibilities can emerge when working in collaboration with the contributor. This shows the importance of seeing the editorial process as a dialogue.
This last step requires you to get one more layer of external feedback on the story, ideally from someone with a shared identity or lived experience as the contributor. Is there a colleague on your team who could serve this purpose? If not, is there a board member, volunteer, or someone in your professional network who would be willing to provide this counsel to you?
You will want this person to review all the original copy (audio recording, transcription, original written story, etc,) as well as your edited version, and have them answer these three questions:
1. Do my edits still authentically represent the original story?
2. Do you agree with what I’ve removed (details about the contributor’s story) and what I have added (more context about our program/organization)?
3. Does this story contain any language, phrases, themes, or implications that counteract our mission (reinforce harmful stereotypes, portray people without agency, etc.)?
As your organization continues to grow, Steps 1 and 2 should remain commonplace, whereas Step 3 should evolve into a paid staff position. While I have many readers from small nonprofits who rely on the pro-bono support of friends and peers, I want to encourage you to grow your team with equity in mind. As you bring on new board members and hire fundraising and marketing staff, please look to those communities who have been impacted by the issues your organization is addressing. If you commit to building this team early on, you won’t have to undo the unproductive work and harmful practices that become institutionalized when important people are left out of the decisions.