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Field Notes

Getting Started With Ethical Storytelling: Challenging the Way We Tell Stories

As more nonprofits and foundations make storytelling a centerpiece of their communications strategy, our collective understanding of what makes a “good” story continues to evolve. Most recently, ethical storytelling for nonprofits has gained in importance, including systems storytelling and the ways in which our stories can avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes and assumptions. Ethical storytelling is more than just a way of writing, it is a movement and a platform to help nonprofit communicators be more respectful, responsible, and effective when telling other people’s stories. Ethical storytelling has roots in important nonprofit communications strategies such as asset framing (pioneered by Trabian Shorters) and in lived experience.

As with both of these practices, our focus in ethical storytelling must be to remember that as communicators, we are often telling a person’s story for them. Where important trends like systems storytelling focus on the way the story is told and the organization telling the story, a new approach to storytelling makes us think about the person who’s story is being told. How has this been overlooked for so long?! And if we are going to be more ethical in how we share stories of other people’s lived experiences, then what are the questions that we must ask ourselves to ensure that we’re using best practices for ethical storytelling and make sure that we’re doing so responsibly?

How do we ask for consent to tell someone’s story? 

Ethical Storytelling challenges us to think about the inherent power dynamics that exist between a nonprofit or foundation and the person who is telling them their story. In most cases, the stories nonprofits look to share are from people or communities who have benefited directly from that nonprofit’s work. It’s not a stretch to say that some might owe their life or livelihood to the nonprofit’s services, funding, or support.

So, when a nonprofit or foundation provide a platform for someone to share their story and lived experience, it can be empowering.—but it can also be difficult for someone to feel comfortable saying “no.” What does this mean for ethically gaining consent as storytellers? Is someone consenting to share their story authentically? Or could they feel pressured to consent because of the power dynamics? Falling into the trap of acting as a savior to help others is a real concern that nonprofit communicators need to fight against if we’re going to do our work ethically.

How does life change after a story goes public? 

Because social impact storytelling remains such a hot topic in the nonprofit sector, there’s a risk of conflating communicators’ excitement with the realities of publicly sharing a personal story. For a lot of people, sharing their personal stories traumas isn’t all good. The #MeToo movement is a good example that demonstrates this point—sharing an experience with sexual harassment, assault, or rape opened women to online trolling, personal threats, and potential loss of employment or support systems. But even in less public cases, going public with your story can have far-reaching impacts on your day-to-day life. 

So, remember that the stories we tell have a life far beyond after we write them—and that life can come with serious consequences. Is the person or people who you’re sharing a story of aware of those implications? Have you been very clear about what that might look like? If not, makje sure you have been before sharing the most personal aspects of someone’s life—even if it is in service of your nonprofit’s mission.

Why does a nonprofit want to tell this story? Are there other ways to achieve that goal? 

This is the most important question for nonprofit communicators to think about before interviewing someone for a story. When someone consents to an interview, there is a great deal of trust involved because they are sharing something of themselves. It’s our job as nonprofit communicators to make sure that we honor this trust—starting by asking why we’re telling the story in the first place.

What will the story that someone is sharing with you help your nonprofit accomplish? Is a story the best and/or the only way to achieve that end? If not, then think twice about whether using another person’s story for your own ends is the right thing to do. It can be a tricky balance—to be in service of the mission often means to be in service of the person whose story you’d like to help tell.

Much More to Learn in Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits

At Constructive, leaning into ethical storytelling as part of our practice is a journey we’re on like many others. It’s so important that we get it right. There’s a lot we’re still learning about ethical storytelling and the ways we can put it to use for the nonprofits that we work with. And as a design agency, we’re always thinking about not just the written words, but how visual storytelling is an important part of ethical storytelling. The experiences we design play a central role in how those stories are shared. So, as we learn more about this and other ethical communications strategies, we’ll share the ways our thinking and processes evolve.

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