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Ethical Nonprofit Marketers Tell Stories with Empathy

Sarah Steimer

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Nonprofits exist to solve problems. But using a problem-then-solution formula oversimplifies nonprofit storytelling, and it fails to show the full scope of the lives touched.

Nonprofit marketers know that stories can compel donors, but it can be a tricky endeavor to procure those stories. Nonprofit beneficiaries may feel less driven to talk about one of the most challenging periods of their life. They may feel embarrassed or as though they’re being defined by their experience.

“Some ethical concerns are the same as with any other marketing efforts, such as always ensuring you have permission from someone to utilize their image,” says Rick Cohen, chief communications officer and COO of the National Council of Nonprofits. “Nonprofits have an added layer of sensitivity in that some of the people who utilize their services would prefer that others not know.”

Finding someone comfortable with sharing their story can be difficult enough, and many marketers may breathe a sigh of relief when they find a willing subject: The hard part is over. But to tell a story that will empower the person or community and motivate the audience, marketers need go beyond the problem-then-solution formula.

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“You can’t tell a story about a whole person unless you ask about the whole person,” says Kate Marple, director of communications at the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

Marple says that she began thinking differently about nonprofit storytelling about four years ago, when her best friend agreed to speak at a nonprofit’s fundraising gala. Leading up to the event, the nonprofit organization proposed edits that removed personal parts of her friend’s speech. “She had been asked to share something deeply personal, but to fit her experience into a predetermined narrative created by the organization and its goals,” Marple recalls. “I witnessed how that made her feel, and the strength she demonstrated in pushing back to maintain control of her narrative and ensure her perspective was included. It drove home for me this need to truly partner with people if we are going to ask them to share their stories.”

Always Seek Stories, Not Just When You Need Them

Nonprofit marketers reach for stories before a major campaign, while planning an event or when a reporter requests a comment. But only seeking these stories when needed can force them into narrow boxes.

“When the need for a story is urgent, it can put pressure on both a client and on a staff member, and eliminate the chance for more thoughtful conversations where that person is not only in control of their narrative, but also in shaping the larger message,” Marple says. When looking for a story at the last minute, marketers may only seek out anecdotes that have the happiest ending, versus searching for someone in the best position to tell their story, a teller who would likely benefit from doing so.

The person should guide the storytelling, not the other way around. Marple recommends that nonprofits create a culture inside the organization where clients and community members served by the organization collaborate to determine what stories should be told. “I think our job is not just to ask people for their stories, but to ask for their guidance in what stories to tell and how and where to tell them,” she says.

Nonprofits should actively and regularly build a speaker’s bureau, an ongoing narrative project or have a regular opportunity to submit stories. “It’s important to engage with people who are not in active crisis and those who are no longer using an organization’s services so that there is less of a chance someone will feel obligated to share if they don’t want to,” Marple says.

Don’t Reduce a Person to Their Problem, and Don’t Make the Nonprofit a Hero

Overcoming a challenge may be an unforgettable experience. It may even define a certain period of a person’s life. But it doesn’t tell their entire story. “If you’re interviewing someone, it’s important to ask not just about what happened to them, but about who they are, about their family, about what they’re proud of,” Marple says. “Before a story introduces a problem, it should introduce a person.”

Focusing on a person’s problem can unintentionally victimize them. Oftentimes, the nonprofit gets involved in the issue after a person or community has already been trying to right a wrong. An over-simplified story can paint the organization as the hero, making the nonprofit bigger than the person’s story.

Marple gives the example of a mother who blew the whistle on management about lead paint in her building. She had been trying for months to get her city involved before the nonprofit stepped in. “Focusing on mom’s advocacy in the story still acknowledges the problem,” Marple says, “but it conveys the bigger problem of substandard housing and shows that mom was the one trying to do something about it, not only for her family, but for others. An organization’s work should be mentioned, but never in a way that evokes a savior image.”

Showing a fuller picture, one that starts before and continues after the nonprofit’s involvement, humanizes the subject beyond their challenge. Marple herself encountered the issue in her work as a documentary playwright. “As part of my theater work, I started telling stories about my own experiences with childhood illness and as a queer person,” she says. “I began to ask myself if I would want to share those stories in the context of a nonprofit campaign focused on health care or LGBTQIA+ rights.” Marple says that her biggest fears about sharing her story were that she would be reduced to one thing or she would be used for someone else’s agenda. “I came up with some criteria I’d want followed if someone were asking for my story, and it’s what I now follow if I’m asking someone to share theirs in a nonprofit context.” This includes framing the story through that person’s perspective, giving them complete control over how it’s shared, aiming for informed consent and allowing them to review the final product before publishing.

Cohen echos the need for giving final permission to the subjects. “Nonprofits that work with sensitive populations will usually have policies in place that go a little further in not just asking permission to use an image or story,” Cohen says, “but also give those people the chance to see exactly how those stories are being told and where before granting permission.”

Empathy Is Greater Than Sympathy

Marple published a guide on empathetic, partnered storytelling, called “Who Tells the Story?” In the guide, she writes that sympathy leads to charity, while empathy leads to change. She says that a story focused solely on a person’s problem or the details of their circumstance causes the audience to feel sympathy or pity. Research shows that sympathy can elicit donations, but pity also runs the risk of putting distance between donors and beneficiaries.

“When stories are overly focused on circumstances, it’s easier for those hearing the story to feel like, ‘That’s not me,’ or ‘That could never happen to me,’” Marple says. “But when we tell stories that more fully depict who someone is—what kind of parent they are, what they find joy in, the incredible advocacy they do for themselves and their community—alongside the story of what happened, it is easier for people hearing it to recognize themselves or their families in that story, in that person and in that community.”

Focusing on the trials of a person or community may elicit donations, but it may also fail to connect donor with cause in a more foundational way. If a donor can see themselves in the affected person or can see that there are relatable layers to their story, the story creates a connection. Those connections may be the difference between getting a one-time donation and creating a lifelong supporter.

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.