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Field Notes

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, the field has focused on systems storytelling and the ways in which our stories can avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes and assumptions. 

As a passionate practitioner of storytelling myself, I notice the conversation in the field making an interesting shift. 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?

Driving this shift is Ethical Storytelling, which is both an approach and a movement that encourages storytellers to consider the ethics of telling someone else’s story. In December, I attended a webinar hosted by Amy Costello and Freddie Boswell of the TinySpark podcast on how Ethical Storytelling informs their work. Though their insights were offered from a journalist’s perspective, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. Here some of the questions Ethical Storytellings challenges us to ask:

How do we ask for consent to tell a story? 

Ethical Storytelling challenges us to think about the inherent power dynamics that exist between a nonprofit or foundation and the person telling 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. What does that mean for gaining consent as storytellers? Is someone consenting to share their story authentically? Or could they feel pressured to consent because of the power dynamics? 

How does life change after a story goes public? 

Because storytelling remains a buzzy topic in the social impact 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 webinar used the example of the #MeToo movement to demonstrate 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. 

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. What will the story help your organization accomplish? And is a story the best and/or the only way to achieve that end? If not, maybe consider other ways to garner support. 

More to Learn & More to Grow

There’s a lot we’re still learning about ethical storytelling and the ways we can put it to use for the organizations we work with. Even if as consultants we’re not the ones sourcing actual stories, the experiences we design play a central role in how those stories are shared. As we learn more about this and other ethical communications strategies, we’ll share the ways our thinking and processes evolve.

About the Author

Allison Murphy

Allison Murphy

Allison brings a diverse perspective from the government, nonprofit, and social entrepreneurship sectors to her role as Senior Strategist at Constructive. A passion for writing paired with extensive experience in marketing, social media, events management, and research guide her efforts to lead Constructive’s digital and content marketing strategies, establish and maintain new partnerships, and apply a strategic communications-lens to client engagements. Prior to Constructive, Allison worked at Third Sector Capital Partners in Boston, MA supporting the Communications and Business Development teams. She received her BA in Political Science and International Affairs from Northeastern University.

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