Nonprofit Storytelling: Best Practices and Resources for Ethical Communication

Before you gather stories for your website or year-end appeals, first download these 3 expert resources that feature all the best practices – or skip to the complete guide on ethical storytelling for nonprofits, curated by MemoryFox.
Illustration of an open mouth, conversation bubbles, and quote symbols to symbolize collaborative storytelling and lifting different voices.
Illustration by iStock Contributor "Everything Bagel"

As a graphic designer, I’ve been telling stories through visual design for just about 15 years creating memorable brands. From large corporations to small businesses – and now exclusively for nonprofit organizations around the United States – I’ve witnessed the profound power that storytelling can have on communities, connection, and ultimately brand success.

But until attending the 2023 Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, I had no idea what a meaningful shift the nonprofit sector was experiencing in this realm. It was Diana Farias Heinrich’s session on “Informed Consent Conversations” that rocked my ideas of ethical storytelling to my core. 

Nonprofit fundraisers and marketers are constantly told to “get the story” so that they can use it to raise awareness and more money for the organization. That’s a tall order on its own, but then there’s added pressure for stories to pull on heartstrings and tie back to the mission so it’ll give that extra boost to end-of-year appeals. But with our eyes on the prize, it’s easy to overlook the nuanced ramifications of using a person’s life story for the benefit of our mission.

In other words, how can we practice effective storytelling in a way that everyone wins, not just your nonprofit? 

What is Ethical Storytelling?

Ethical storytelling is a method of gathering and sharing personal testimonials that prioritizes integrity, respect, and sensitivity. Ethical storytellers recognize the power of compelling storytelling to influence perceptions, inspire action, and foster empathy, but they also acknowledge a responsibility to present stories truthfully and with consideration for the dignity of those involved.

Ethical storytelling for nonprofits is ultimately about balancing the organization’s goals with the rights and welfare of the individuals whose stories are shared.

Nonprofit Storyteller Standard of Ethics: 

  • Accuracy: Avoid exaggeration and misleading portrayals that could distort the audience’s understanding or expectations.
  • Consent: Be clear about how someone’s story will be used and allow them to review and approve the narrative before it’s published.
  • Dignity: Respect the individual’s personhood and strengths rather than their vulnerabilities, suffering, or pity-driven narratives.
  • Context: Present stories within their broader social, economic, and political contexts to avoid oversimplification.
  • Equity: Challenge stereotypes and accurately portray a wide range of experiences, backgrounds, and identities within your community. 
  • Impact: Evaluate the potential consequences of the impact that sharing certain stories or too much information can have on the subjects and their communities. Articles and words on the internet live on forever!
  • Representation: Ask individuals to share their experiences in their own words, which leads to a more authentic narrative.

A strict list of standards may feel daunting, but it underlines why a commitment to ethical storytelling is so important! It forces us to look beyond the immediate impact of benefitting the nonprofit and challenges us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

We must use storytelling as a force for good, fostering empathy and support without compromising the principles of honesty, respect, and fairness. We owe it to our constituents and our organizations to steward their stories better than most organizations do now. 

“I Felt Used”: The Importance of Ethical Storytelling (from Personal Experience)

I’ve been on the receiving end of being asked to share my story and let me tell you there is an unspoken pressure that inevitably comes from well-meaning nonprofits. I don’t mind sharing the story of my open-heart surgery and connective tissue condition, but one situation left me feeling used and hurt. 

A nonprofit comms director and I agreed to meet up to swap stories. I shared all the details of my personal experience, and I was delighted to hear that they saw an opportunity to share my story at their annual gala. Wow, what an honor – and a huge deal! 

But after the meeting, I never heard from them again. It took me back to my online dating days of being ghosted after I thought we “had a connection.” But this was worse. For many trauma-survivors like myself, opening up requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and trust – why revisit the pain, unless sharing that story ultimately has a beneficial purpose?

I’m now very familiar with the ways nonprofits work. So if this is how I was treated I can only imagine how many other people are feeling discarded or forgotten after spilling out their hearts under the impression that it will lead to something meaningful for their community. It hurts. And honestly, it left me guarded toward that particular nonprofit.

They heard my story, but there was no communication, no clear plan of action, no next steps. Are they planning to share it at the annual gala without me? What will they say? Or were they just pretending to be interested? Was it all for nothing?

I share my experience to demonstrate that even mega-nonprofits lack a standard practice for gathering stories ethically – and there should be a standard! If they’re serious about having a positive impact, nonprofits – big and small – need to step up and do better.

3 Must-Have Resources (PLUS a Complete Guide) from Ethical Storytelling Experts

While there are hundreds of “storytelling experts” who serve nonprofit organizations, there are very few that I trust as I continue learning how to tell ethical stories for our clients at HeartSpark. Ethical storytelling requires a distinct combination of composure, strategy, and legitimate experience in nonprofit marketing. These experts have mastered the nuance – so I encourage you to follow their lead.

These experts are trained in ethical storytelling, trauma-informed language, and privacy and consent best practices. I reference their guides often and encourage you to follow them on LinkedIn to stay current – ethical storytelling is an emerging field, and these professionals are leading the way by example.

And if you thrive on structure, check out the Ethical Storytelling Guide created by MemoryFox. This is a one-stop-shop for visual testimonials and storytelling that includes many of the best practices outlined by the experts above – and features contributions from yours truly. Trust me, this is an awesome way to stay on track with your ethical storytelling strategies.

Setting a New Standard for Storytelling

Ethical storytelling may seem like a buzzword marketers are throwing around, but there’s something much deeper at work in how we gather and steward stories – and I fully believe that nonprofits can lead the way in setting these new standards. 

There’s not one “perfect” way to gather stories or a secret formula for how to steward story sharers over time, but as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

There’s still a lot to learn when it comes to telling stories ethically, and artificial intelligence is throwing a whole new wrench in these methods. I’m here for all these conversations and believe that by raising the standard together, we’ll be able to gather and tell even greater stories for a better world.