Ethical Storytelling

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A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled, Are you really telling stories?” written by Paul VanDeCarr provides an excellent road map for good narrative or storytelling.  I encourage all our readers to give this article a perusal.  However, I am not writing about Paul’s article today, rather a phrase he uses toward then end and that phrase is “the ethics of storytelling.”  The discussion of this issue intrigues me.  You see as storytellers, and, yes, as fundraisers we are storytellers, we have a responsibility to our listeners and readers.  As controllers of narrative we have an ethical responsibility to tell true stories or let our readers/listeners know that they are reading fiction.  While we certainly have the ability to shape our stories to elicit a response from our readers/listeners, we need to be careful how we use this power.  It may be tempting to some to bend the truth and fabricate a story that meets your immediate needs.  After all, though charitable giving does seem to be recovering, the pressure to raise increased revenue is ever-present and growing.  Some might ask, “What’s the harm?”  If I engineer a story that causes someone to support a good organization, isn’t that good?  While the action of someone contributing to a good organization may be, indeed, good, the method that caused the donor to contribute is not.  When the donor realizes he/she has been duped by an organization, several things will happen:

  • The donor will sever ties with the organization.  You will have sacrificed a long-term investor for a short-term gain.
  • You may have caused the donor to doubt the veracity of all charities that may cause him/her to cease making non-profit contributions–an action that will harm other organizations by ripple effect.
  • You may open your organization to significant legal or regulatory exposure.  The donor may press authorities to sanction your organization for unethical practices putting your nonprofit status in jeopardy.

As fundraisers and storytellers we owe a debt to our readers/listeners to be truthful in all that we do.  As we struggle to find the message/story that will make our mission alive for our constituents, we must never lose sight of the fact that we have a duty to be honest and forthright.  If our mission is worthy of support it is up to us to tell a compelling story that will connect a prospects needs to ours and outline how their action will make a positive impact.  Ethical storytelling is central to our role as fundraisers and should be the only method employed by organizations to share their narrative.

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