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How Can Nonprofits Move From Exploitative Storytelling To Justice-Oriented Storytelling?

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One day while searching through a greeting card section at a local store, I glimpsed at a card that read, “Be the author of your own story.” At that moment, I had recently been asked to tell my own story, once again, to a nonprofit organization looking to share my story with potential donors. As a ​systemically non-dominant​ person whose voice has been exploited to impress donors in the past, I was hesitant. However, my experience of seeing the messaging on that card led me to the decision to become a ​story gatekeeper, someone who vows to protect ​voice agency and to advocate against ​storyteller exploitation​ demonstrated through being exoticized, tokenized, and or otherized.

During that time in my life, I was, simultaneously, volunteering in an office of a nonprofit. I would accompany the person in charge of fundraising when she would visit the people the organization had served, ostensibly to “hear” and then share their stories with donors. ​I felt challenged, on these excursions, by how the voices were portrayed once the stories were printed in the nonprofit’s magazine. I heard the way the original stories had been told, but by the time they went to print, each word was manipulated negatively. The stories presented those being served as deficit models, and it was presumed that without the donors this person in the story would never make it in life-which was not true. The people I met were resilient, powerful, proud, and ambitious. However, the only portion told was of their obstacles on the way to where they were.

Being that I was aware that the person in charge of the stories did not have a heart for story-gathering I asked if I could take on the responsibility. The answer was yes. Although my name was never mentioned as the author of the articles, I felt that every story from that point on was reflected authentically as told– from the heart of the storyteller.

Regularly, nonprofits are gathering stories to encourage fundraising efforts. Googling the phrase ‘how to tell a good story so donors will contribute money’ brings up 2,280,000 results. The question is not “​Why do nonprofits gather stories for money?” ​The real questions are “Whose stories are nonprofits collecting?” “How do nonprofits collect stories?” and ”How are the stories being used?”

What I share below are not just tips or lessons learned to protect voice agency. These are vows I pledged to myself for how I would conduct myself as a story gatherer and as a story gatekeeper:

I learned that I can never become the author of anyone else’s story. ​

One of the best lessons I learned early on in my career was that I am only the owner of my story. I am not qualified to claim, as an expert, what I know about someone else. The sense of agency belongs to the storyteller. I am to listen intently and observe unobtrusively. I recognized that the words being shared are opening a sacred door to a path where only they and I will walk together for an allotted amount of time.

I learned that I can never “otherize” nor “objectify” the storyteller or their story.

Nonprofits may find themselves writing about systemically non-dominant populations in ways that ​other them​ because donors may desire to hear the tragic path someone has taken to get where they are today. Powell and Menendian (2018) state, “Widening the circle of human concern involves ‘humanizing the other,’ where negative representations and stereotypes are challenged and rejected.” A stereotypical type of story can tug at the heartstrings and encourage wallets to open; however, simultaneously, that same story may victimize and dehumanize the storyteller.

I learned that I can never become the empowering driver behind a storyteller’s voice. ​

I am the creator of storytelling space. I am to open the environment for a person to speak freely. I am to provide an atmosphere of safety, affirmation, and exploration for the storyteller to feel a connection to their own voice that will allow them to delve even deeper into the foundations of their core.

I learned that I can never neglect to show gratitude for what they offer.​

I am to remain in a space of appreciation as the storyteller initially shares then expounds on what they desire for me to know. My role is to perceive this as listening and observing opportunity to be in their presence, to sit at their feet metaphorically, and to hear what they desire for me to hear gracefully.

I learned that I can never disregard the authenticity of their voice.​

The voice of the storyteller should be the loudest and most profound voice in the written space. When I am approaching or am approached by someone to delve passionately into their story, I am there as a preserver of their​ voice​ which means that I am here, for them, as someone to present their voice in a manner that will not misrepresent them.

I learned that I can never perceive the experience of gathering their story as doing them a favor. ​

It is not the role of systemically non-dominant storytellers to make themselves available to systemically dominant writers. Some who gather stories believe they are doing the storyteller a favor and that the one sharing the story should be grateful to get the information out to the public. I had to grow to see that each person is providing a ​gift of story to me and to the audience. Now, I view the experience as an opportunity to become a “listener and observer of the story” because it is an opportunity for me to receive the storyteller’s intimate connection- or an in-to-them-see.

I learned that I can never allow my interpretation of the story to shift the meaning from authentically transformational to intrusively translational. ​

There is an African proverb that reads, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The storyteller’s story is not to glorify me or the nonprofit. I am to do my best to write through an anti-bias lens to avoid the temptation to hold the storyteller in a stereotypical representation. I am not to alter their story to appease my audience, including my donors. I am to ask questions, from the storyteller, for clarification so that the richness of their words maintains the authenticity of their heart and original voice.

I encourage those who gather stories for the purpose of fundraising to think about stories as vibrant snapshots gifted providing a rare glimpse into the in-depth day-to-day lives of people. Stories may be told through words, pictures, observations, actions, or behaviors. I had to learn that regardless of how the story is told I, as a story gatherer and story gatekeeper, must always ask am I really listening for an authentic voice and power of the storyteller or am I focusing only on the portion of the story that could benefit the nonprofit?

Once the story is gathered, I must challenge my purpose of harvesting the story by asking am I telling their story in a way that will speak life to whom the storyteller and their lived experiences are, or am I instead contributing to the exploitation of the story and objectifying the storyteller for donor fundraising gain?


Powell, J. & Menendian, S. (2018). ​The problem of othering towards inclusiveness and belonging. ​Othering and Belonging Institute at University of Berkeley: Berkeley, CA

Jenkins, D. (2018). ​A critical lens to rethinking power, privilege, and inequity language: Systemically dominant and systemically non-dominant. Share the Flame LLC: Camas WA

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  • Dana Harrison

    I love this explanation and am yearning for tangible examples to illustrate the points. Show a "write this, not that" example. Take an appeal that is exploitative and show an alternative that offers more honor. Examples would be an amazing extension if this great piece.
  • Nancy

    Dr. Debi: this is such a fabulous piece, one I am sharing with our interns and others involved in the non-profit with which I work. We are a community founded and community led non-profit. As the only English speaker, much of the fundraising ends up in my to do list. And even though I tend to co-write much of the material with our local facilitator, who is from the founding communities, we often struggle with these points. How do we tell a compelling story (at this point we haven't told a specific individual's story) about the communities, or the work they are doing, without othering and falling into exactly all the errors you have described. Do you have positive examples you can direct us to, that would allow us to study how you tell the stories? I feel like being able to read the positive examples, might help us to figure out how to do a better job with the stories we tell/write/publish/send out. Thank you, Nancy D
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    Amazing, thank you for such a wonderful article!
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  • Florence Malorbah Dorley

    This is an eye opening piece for fundraisers in the Non profit world. We can tell the story without dehumanizing the storyteller. Thank you for this delve in reality.
  • Mazarine Treyz

    Dr Debi, thank you so much for these powerful words. When I interviewed Jarell Skinner-Roy last year in our Name It Podcast episode on Ethical storytelling, he touched on some of these points, but I love how you go deeper into the values of a fundraising story gatherer here, and what to always keep in mind. WELL DONE! - Mazarine
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