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Checkup: Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits and Foundations

Stories remain some of our most effective tools as communicators. There is tremendous power in both sharing your story and in listening to others’ stories. Community organizers have long known that to change minds and shift thinking, we need to connect with each other on an emotional level– we need to reach hearts and minds. And research only continues to substantiate the power of sharing authentic personal experiences to reach persuadable audiences. 

As strategic communicators, we frequently work with clients to gather and share stories, particularly powerful stories from people who have first hand, lived experience with an issue or a challenge that our partners are working on. There is no one better equipped to describe a problem of injustice than someone who has lived with that injustice in their life. Similarly, there is no one better equipped to identify and drive the solutions needed to address injustice than someone who has felt the impact of that oppression. These two points are interconnected and they shouldn’t be divorced from each other when you’re considering your organization's communication strategy. In order for storytelling to be ethical, the storytellers you work with need to have agency and input, they need to be on board with and informing the solutions you’re co-creating. 

But ethical storytelling doesn’t end there. If you are a communications lead, gathering and sharing stories on behalf of an organization, foundation or coalition, here are eight pillars to ensure your organization's storytelling approach follows a “do no harm” approach. We’ll organize these by process (the way you capture and store stories) and content (what is or isn’t communicated within and around the story itself). 


1. Pass the mic. Give people the platform to tell their own stories in their own words. The absolute best way to practice ethical storytelling is to prioritize first-person storytelling. Period. Edit minimally for clarity, length and tone to match the platform the story is intended for. Share what and how editing will happen with story authors before you lay hands on their piece. Share the final piece back with story authors before publishing. Story authors should have the final say on the content, and it should always sound like their voice. 

2. Compensate storytellers. The best practice is to pay people for their time and expertise, particularly if the story you’re seeking is labor-intensive to share. However, there are considerations for compensation. As an organization, it may not make sense to compensate people monetarily if the story they may share is traumatizing– this could set up an exploitative trap in which organizations are mining for stories from people who are retraumatized by reliving them. Consider that there are multiple ways to compensate people: if you are inviting people to be a part of a video, you could provide childcare, food and parking or transportation stipends. 

3. Consider other benefits for storytellers. What is in it for them to share their experience? You should be able to point to real, tangible benefits; and if not, consider how to build those in by asking storytellers you have worked with in the past what might make this more worth their time. Does showing up to a rally or advocacy meeting allow them face time with community decision-makers, and if so, are they able to set the agenda for that time? If you’re shooting a video, could photography stills be shared with the storytellers as portraits for their professional use? Do they feel that sharing their story gives them power over a harmful past experience and if so, is mental health support available for them before and after sharing? Ask, listen, learn; act on what you hear and then ask again. 

4. Consider the real-life impact your stories may have. Sharing our personal stories and experiences publicly can be extremely powerful, but it can also have consequences – especially in the age of social media. Especially if you’re working with young people, talk with them about the pros and cons of sharing their story publicly so they can make an informed decision and discuss what support they want/need once the story is live (e.g., if they receive hateful comments on social media). 

5. Name how and how long you’ll share stories for. If you’re sharing someone’s story (or photo) on your organization's platform, you should be as transparent as possible beforehand about how their story will be used, for how long and where it will be shared. Avoid blanket consent agreements. Instead, partner with storytellers to set the terms you both feel comfortable with and leave room for them to change their mind down the road. We recommend adding an end date for stories and using them for no longer than two years. At that point, you should check back in with the storyteller to ensure it’s alright with them for their story to remain active. For example, if it’s shared in a blog on your website, past that point it may be archived. You should also be clear with people that once stories are out there, it may be hard to pull them back, even if you can take a blog post down. You don’t have full control over how videos, photos, and content is shared over the internet and over time. 


6. Position the person or community facing the issue - not the organization or foundation - as the hero of the story. This means ensuring that you don’t diminish people’s agency as they share about the issues they’re facing. They need to be the ones in the arc of the story who save the day or overcome some adversity.

7. Check for harmful stereotypes, tropes or narratives and steer far away. Narratives are collections of stories that reflect shared beliefs which help us interpret and understand how the world works. Your story is advancing or challenging some narrative. Check-in with yourself, your storyteller and your community advisors to have an active plan about the narratives you need to diminish and those you need to advance. To do this, you have to know what existing status quo narratives or harmful tropes exist around the issue you’re sharing about. You need to have a savvy analysis of power in the community. This requires attention and listening. It doesn't happen overnight- this is the essential perspective that comes from being in community with people who have lived experience on the issue you’re working on. If this is something you’re not sure where to start with, reach out to us- we’re eager to help.

8. Name systems. What’s invisible is intractable. We need to name the systems that create environments that build our world– the school systems, built environments, city budgets and so on that play a role in shaping our realities. By naming systems with as much specificity as possible, we can remind listeners that systems were built by people, impact people, and can be changed by people. Every good story has a hero and a villain. But that villain doesn’t need to be an individual- it can be a policy, a lack of action, a company (or the board or CEO of a company) and so on. When stories link to systems they play an important role in shifting our lens from the individual to the interconnected, which has ethical implications for the stories we share- it helps us to understand that the person sharing their story is not responsible for the harmful conditions they’re facing. 

What else do you see as critical to ethical storytelling in 2022? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at And if you’re interested in exploring this more deeply, know that we offer tailored ethical storytelling sessions for groups large and small. Do what you can to leverage the power of authentic storytelling, and in the process, always be building power alongside the storytellers who are partnering with you!   

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at 11:45 am and is filed under Communication planning and Ethical and visual storytelling. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.