By Nel Taylor, major gifts officer
One thing we are learning when it comes to community-centric fundraising is to move away from individual storytelling and toward organizational storytelling.
But what if you have an incredible, compelling story to share? Is there a way to do it in a community-centric way?
The following is my experience as a storyteller and a storytell-ee.
The unintended consequences of individual story telling
I spent a few years being praised for my difficulties rather than celebrated for my real attributes and hard work.
My career in nonprofit storytelling began at my transition out of homelessness. I was a program participant in a small arts nonprofit organization and as an 18-year-old formerly homeless, queer, non-binary, Indigenous person who used to sell drugs, my story was clearly a testament to the organization’s success, and it became the story they would sell to donors.
I use the word “sell” consciously.
Speaking at galas, small donor dinners, in the newspaper, and at other fundraising events certainly had its benefits. I became acquainted with some of the most powerful people in the Portland arts community. I was invited to luncheons with senators, dinners with key funders, and built relationships with really remarkable people who invested in my success.
But the experience also had many drawbacks. I felt as if the worst parts of myself were on display. I remember being interviewed for the local paper and, without any coaching, didn’t know quite what I had gotten into. Nervous and unprepared, I shared some very personal and dark details of my life, the consequences of which didn’t settle in until I saw the text in black and white: “Nel Taylor talks of selling drugs on the streets while travelling with Grateful Dead fans.”
My stomach sank. After that story went to print, I received an unsettling piece of vulgar ‘fan mail’ from a prison inmate. I was 18. I was still a child. No one had protected me.
While I enjoyed speaking about my journey and educating privileged people about the realities of living on the streets, it didn’t take long before the story no longer felt like my own. I was coached on what to say and how to say it. One event manager even told me that there was math behind whether you cry or not while giving an appeal and the rate at which people give.
I spent a few years being praised for my difficulties rather than celebrated for my real attributes and hard work. And I don’t fault the organization for this at all — because this is how it’s always been done.
This work eventually led me down a path to a professional development career, and for that I’m extremely grateful.
But when I took my first full time job at another arts nonprofit, I decided I would do it differently.
Here are the rules I created for myself to ensure that the story I’m telling is done so ethically:
1. Put out an open call for folx to offer their stories
I know it’s tempting to hand-pick the story you find the most compelling or to identify the ‘most diverse’ person to represent your organization’s work, but when we ask someone directly, especially if they are marginalized, it can sometimes be impossible to say no. Remember that none of your program participants owe you anything.
And offer a stipend, if you can. Ask folx who would like to share their experience to come forward — and look for enthusiastic consent.
2. Meet this individual in person (or via Zoom)
Have an actual meeting with them because simply asking someone to type something up, or answer a list of questions emailed to them creates a power imbalance. Also, perhaps they struggle with the written word, maybe they need to warm up to you first, or maybe they aren’t sure what you’re looking for and might share more than they’d like to.
Create a real, authentic relationship with the person you are highlighting. Watch their body language and facial expressions for discomfort or excitement. Hold real, safe space for them to share.
3. Introduce yourself and set expectations
Make it very clear why you’re asking for this story. How will it be used? Who will see it? What is the goal? Get very specific.
Introduce yourself thoroughly. What are your own fundraising ethics? How far are you on your equity journey? What do you still have to learn?
Come with clear questions to ask, more than just “tell me your story.”
4. Ask permission
Say these things: “May I write the first draft and send it back to you?” “May I record this interview?” “I noticed you shared something rather personal, may I include that in the letter?” “May I use your name? Your pronouns? A picture? Other identifiable information?”
Don’t assume that they know what a traditional appeal looks like, or that they know what they’ve signed up for. Ask for consent every step of the way.
5. Involve them in the drafting and editing process
This person should have access to every version of the document. Give them editing abilities on Google Docs or however you’re drafting. Send them each draft to edit and approve. Notify them of any major changes. They should have final approval of everything.
6. Have a back-up plan
Remember that someone can revoke consent any time they want to. Create a space where it is OK for someone to change their mind and have a back-up story ready to go, just in case.
Folx don’t need to be bothered with the guilt of putting you behind on deadline or you scrambling to get something out last minute.
7. Manage donor interactions
As much as we love our wonderful supporters, they can sometimes be a little … out of touch. If your participant is going to be making calls to donors or speaking at an event or dinner with your stakeholders, it is your responsibility that that is a safe thing to do.
Give the power to your participant. Ensure that their needs are met first, rather than centering the donors needs. Field questions and inappropriate topics, create space to check in and make sure that everything still feels comfortable for your storyteller.
And most importantly, hold your donors to the same expectations as your staff. The time has passed where we chuckle off a racist comment from a major supporter. We are all responsible for holding our donors accountable and that responsibility is even more important when they are interacting with a program participant. I can’t stress this enough: Push. Back. On. Problematic. Behaviors!
Through my work in storytelling and implementing these rules, I feel a sense of relief that I have undone the damage caused to me by the nonprofit industrial complex and have received overwhelming positive feedback from program participants that I’ve worked with. This is the key to maintaining positive relationships with your alum, and ensuring that you have many powerful stories to tell in the future.
Nel Taylor (they/them/theirs), Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, is a development professional with nearly 10 years of donor relations and storytelling experience in the arts. After years of supplementing part-time and volunteer work in fundraising with bartending, they took the leap into full-time development work two years ago. They have served on the board of directors at the Circus Project, graduated the Art of Leadership program through Regional Arts and Culture Council, and are currently taking the certificate in nonprofit fundraising course at Willamette Valley Development Officers. Nel was born and raised in Portland, OR, is an active participant in the social justice and activism community in Portland, is a strong advocate for equity in nonprofit work, is a musician and performer, and an avid meditator and NBA fan.
Thank you! I’ve been waiting for someone to write this article 🙂 I write impact stories and am very aware of the power imbalance, but also feel it is a genuine privilege to introduce some remarkable people to the wider world. I appreciate your tips on how to be more attentive and aware in my story gathering and telling.
Great article. Thank you for breaking it down so clearly.
Thank you Nel Taylor for this truly helpful and concise guide to ethical storytelling. At the organization I work for, where we offer youth development programs for underserved and court-connected youth, we are frequently asked by very well-meaning individuals to share the hardships of program participant’s stories or to bring youth to tell their own story just as you described. What you have written here is powerful and very helpful. In the spirit of honoring the rules you wrote about, I would like to ask your permission to share this article widely with fellow non-profits, and people who need to be educated about ethical and empowering storytelling. This might not be the right avenue for asking that permission, if not, I’d appreciate a re-direct!
Thank you so much for your kind words! Please, share far and wide! I hope this is helpful!
I would like to echo this request. I am writing a piece on storytelling for social impact organisations, and was going to have a section on ethical storytelling. Your rules fit the bill perfectly, and if it is okay with you I would like to list the headlines and point people to this article in full. In my view, it’s perfect.
Thank you Nel for sharing your experience and perspective, in way that is actionable. This is a very helpful guide for all of us who share the personal stories of individual people for collective benefit.
Love this article! How much would you recommend paying the storyteller for their stipend? (We’re located in a mid-sized city). I’d love to add this to next year’s event budgets.
My organization has the same question, Elizabeth! A belated response, but I would love to connect if you found anything.
I will print this and keep it close. Thank you for writing it and making it so actionable!
This is fantastic! I’m wondering how you may suggest considering direct service staff in storytelling? By that I mean, if there are bad feelings amongst staff about telling survivors’ stories. Is there some sort of state your organization should be in before individual storytelling is appropriate?
Thank you for this essay, Nell.
And wow…. thank you especially for writing this:
“…hold your donors to the same expectations as your staff. The time has passed where we chuckle off a racist comment from a major supporter. We are all responsible for holding our donors accountable and that responsibility is even more important when they are interacting with a program participant. I can’t stress this enough: Push. Back. On. Problematic. Behaviors!”
I’m off to try and memorize that paragraph.
Thank you again for sharing this essay.
Adding my appreciation for your thoughts and reflections on story telling! Thank you.
This is EXCELLENT!
Thanks for this piece. I work for a large nonprofit currently working on making sure our messaging and storytelling is ore thoughtful and ethical; i shared this piece with people on my team.
Would like to subscribe.
Thank you for sharing your experience and recommendations. They are so valuable for the volunteer field too.
I can’t thank you enough for providing this guide from your experience as a storyteller and a storytell-ee. As a project officer who has been working for many small nonprofits, I have often been asked to “whip up” a client story within a week. Often not asked but ordered by manager who says we need this for our new marketing material asap. I could never make the management understand that telling a story in a proper way takes time. You clearly outlined why it does take the time to do it properly and ethically. I hope to keep these in mind always in my work. Thank you again.
Well done. Thanks. Judging from your response to comments above, it’s ok to share this. I’ll be sharing!
Thank you Nel, for sharing what was in my heart. I worked at a DV shelter in Oregon years ago and we did not think about the impact it had when survivors had to tell their stories, over and over again. I even had to tell my story and it traumatized me. I’m so sorry this happened and continues to happen to you. Thank you for giving us a toolkit to do better as nonprofit storytellers.
Thanks for sharing. I love the tip on editorial rights and opportunity to withdraw consent and give consent. truly ethical
Thank you for your article and giving me a deeper understanding of your perspective. The art of respect that you outline is very helpful for me to understand and use to give respect to anyone
Thank you for sharing with us! I’m working to learn more about community-centered fundraising practices (having “grown up” with donor-centered) and you’ve provided me with greater understanding. I appreciate your willingness to share.
I work in a nonprofit space where program participants are also donors…I know, unique! I regularly interview and craft stories about their lives, following many of the consent practices that you outline in this piece. I know they are appreciated and those interviewed comment to me that they feel valued and celebrated for who they are beyond being a donor. Before each visit, I work to center myself on, this person is a living being, first. Period. Thank you for inspiring to keep listening and growing in this space. I appreciate you!