Creating a culture of ethical storytelling

Creating a culture of ethical storytelling


There’s no short supply of “overcoming adversity” stories in the nonprofit sector.

These are the stories that present a relatable protagonist, introduce a hardship that throws the person off track, and take readers on a journey through the surprises, speedbumps, and eventual success in overcoming the protagonist’s challenge. It’s a basic storytelling structure that’s in our DNA and has been told and retold from the Odyssey to Black Panther (spoiler alert!).

The reason so many nonprofits flock to this famous storytelling model is that—it just works. Research tells us that tension and conflict are some of the most important ingredients in telling a great story. Greater Good Magazine talks about a study by the economist Paul Zak that proved stories with tension or conflict nudge our brains to get involved emotionally and even financially.

We also know good storytelling is effective because it builds community. This great piece in Stanford Social Innovation Review reflects on how stories spark empathy, enabling us to discover shared values and ultimately collaborate for change.

Tension and conflict are some of the most important ingredients in telling a great story

We say all this to say that storytelling holds incredible power, and, because of that, there is an even greater responsibility to tell stories ethically.

But the overcoming adversity story frame also presents two tricky challenges, particularly for organizations that feature clients or beneficiaries in their stories.

When nonprofit professionals tell stories about the people they serve, there’s always a risk of infringing on the story subject’s agency. Stories that earn clicks through shock value can make those featured in your story feel like they’ve lost ownership of their life narrative, or worse, can come off as exploitative or perpetuate stereotypes.

In addition, to highlight a nonprofit’s impact, storytellers sometimes paint the nonprofits rather than their clients as the heroes and often simplify the path it takes to successfully overcome adversity. This ignores the storyteller’s own strength and resilience, and can promote unrealistic expectations from donors or other readers about the work that’s needed to make lasting change.

Stories that earn clicks through shock value can make those featured in your story feel like they’ve lost ownership of their life narrative

We’re not suggesting organizations shy away from the proven elements of a good story, but we do think our goal as communicators working to tackle tough social problems should be to ensure that good storytelling and ethical storytelling are one in the same.

How can organizations build an ethical storytelling culture? We love this resource from the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, which outlines its framework for collecting and crafting stories in an ethical way. It got us thinking about some of the questions we ask ourselves as we work with organizations on ethical storytelling, including:

  • What are your goals for the story? Think about both what you hope it will achieve for your organization as well as what you hope it will achieve for your client, grantee, or other person you are featuring.
  • How can you make your story subject an informed partner in every step of the storytelling process, from initial consent to informing the draft to release of the finished product?
  • Who are you positioning as the “hero” in your story? Would your client/story subject agree? What about the obstacle to success?
  • How are you positioning your organization’s role in the story?
  • Are you setting the story in a broader context? Does the story promote or encourage broader, systemic change that will benefit people like the person who is featured in the longer term?
  • Upon final review, does every aspect of your story fall in line with the deeply held values of your organization, staff, board, and other audiences?

Just as foundations and nonprofits set up social media practices to ensure their online communications best promotes their values and brand, we encourage organizations to establish storytelling guidelines that puts the needs of your story subjects and the values of your organization front and center.

Like what you read? Connect with us at Springboard Partners if you’d like to learn more about putting these ideas into practice.