3 Levels of Ethical Storytelling

The conversation around ethical storytelling has evolved a lot over the years. We used to think of ethical storytelling as a practice of “doing no harm” to our contributors and those featured in the stories. For this, we owe a lot to journalism’s best practices, like getting informed consent, not traumatizing the contributors with insensitive questions, not breeching privacy, and concealing identities when needed.

Level 1: Do No Harm

These are indeed good practices that all nonprofit storytellers should employ, but because we are not impartial reporters but are instead advocates for our causes, we must maintain an even higher standard.

“Do no harm” is really the bare minimum—it’s the least we can be doing.

In my view, thoughtful nonprofit storytellers work at three levels: first, again, we do no harm. Second, we provide value.

Level 2: Provide Value

Most people interpret this to mean that we should be paying our storytellers. This practice makes a good deal of sense for some organizations, but is not the best fit for all. (See my article on the hottest debates around ethical storytelling.)

Economic justice is important, but we must also think about “value” more holistically.

How can the subject of the story, the contributor, feel that participating was an enriching experience?

How is the storytelling experience providing value, not only to the subject but to their greater community, our donors, and our staff?

You don’t need to supply answers on your own. Ask the people who have contributed their stories what they value. Ask the people in your programs who have yet to contribute their stories. The direction – and the definition of “value” should be coming from them.

But the third and final level of ethical storytelling I believe all nonprofit storytellers should embody is to change the beliefs and behaviors of our audiences.

Level 3: Change Beliefs and Behaviors

Our sector exists because of injustice, because of structural, systemic inequities. Whatever your organization’s mission, even if you don’t think of yourself as a social justice organization, I assure you that your work is being impacted by structural inequities.

In just one example, I work with many rare disease organizations. Some rare diseases occur seemingly randomly in the population, without correlation to race, geography, or economic circumstance. Yet even those are subject to society’s inequalities.

Who has access to the specialists who can properly diagnose a rare disease? Who gets access to affordable treatment?

Who can access even basic information about a disease in their native language?

The inequities of our world play out in all of those, and they make our work difficult, more time-consuming, and more expensive. So, we would be wise to address these inequities and use our communications to challenge them. Ask yourself:

What are the beliefs and behaviors that maintain the structural inequities that impact your work?

Of those, what are the beliefs and behaviors we can work at transforming through our communications?

Ethical storytelling does no harm, adds value, and challenges and ultimately changes the narrative. Ethical storytelling is more than who, what, when, where, and how—it’s a tool for removing barriers, creating access, deepening critical consciousness, and catalyzing people into positive action.