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A personal story is a powerful tool for advancing social awareness and social action, but nonprofits are often worried about the impact on clients whose stories are shared to help promote the work of the agency. I am committed to helping organizations manage ethics in using client stories in fundraising and marketing. I offer free consultations and presentations to organizations that want support with ethical storytelling, and there are also some materials on my blog.

I focus on 3 Cs of non-profit storytelling: informed and ongoing consent, working compassionately with clients and audiences, and holding stories in personal and social context.

  • Can a non-profit organization share a client story ethically, after promising confidentiality to that client?
  • Is access to someone else's (private and sensitive) information a fair exchange for donating to a charity? Are personal stories necessary for engagement, and for raising money?
  • How do we assess whether a client is ready to tell their story publicly? How can we support someone to have a positive, safe, and empowered experience in that process?

Non-profit workers come from a wide range of professions and backgrounds. We are accountable for upholding a diversity of ethical codes and practice standards. Helping supporters feel connected, while protecting the privacy and well-being of our clients, is an ethically complex responsibility that we share.

Connecting clients to opportunities to use their voices, and take part in broader social change, is an absolutely worthwhile endeavor. People with lived experience have expertise and valuable perspectives, and are often willing to tell their stories to help an agency where they received services. They are grateful for receiving help and wish to reciprocate, or pay it forward. They may want to connect with their own power, raise awareness of social problems, and combat shame and stigma. They often want to help ensure that services remain available in the future.  A person who courageously speaks up can make it safer for others to share their stories, too.

However, clients who share their stories publicly (or who have their stories told by someone else) may be vulnerable to varying degrees of (almost always unintended) coercion and exploitation. Risks of harm can include/affect privacy, safety, invalidation, disempowerment, negative and/or oppressive public reactions, decreased stability and personal comfort, emotional well-being, family reactions, and impacts on housing and employment.

While acknowledging that there is a human need and drive for reciprocity in relationships, most non-profit organizations consider it highly unethical to expect clients to "sing for their supper" after receiving free or low-cost services.

Ethical storytelling raises many questions, and there are few easy answers. This project is a community co-learning adventure in which we are developing tools, strategies, and processes that can help us to better understand the issues, and respect and protect our clients. Client voices, experiences, and perspectives are central to the ongoing development of this project.

THANK YOU to all of the people and organizations who have told me their own “stories about telling their stories” and/or assisted with editing and resources. For updates on this project as it unfolds, please follow my blog and social media.