Tip of the Month: Get out of your storytelling box

publication date: Oct 1, 2014
author/source: Leah Eustace

By far the most common question I’m asked when I’m speaking about storytelling is along the lines of, “We’re a women’s shelter. How do we tell our stories if we have to maintain our client’s privacy?” Whether you work with a women’s shelter, a hospital foundation, a charity focused on children, or one addressing a particular disease or ailment, you’ve no doubt faced this dilemma.Leah Eustace photo

This month, my tip is to think outside the box when it comes to storytelling.

You can address issues of privacy and confidentiality in one of two ways. First, you can change enough details of the story that the subject becomes unidentifiable.

Focus on connection with reader, not story details

Let’s use a specific example. Let’s imagine that you’re the Director of Development for ABCD Charity, an agency that focuses on addictions. You have an incredibly powerful story, but it involves a young boy living with a drug-addicted single mother in Ottawa. You clearly can’t name the child, nor can you name the child’s mother. And, if you describe the neighborhood too closely, your readers may be able to identify the family.

What you shouldn’t do is walk away from the story (although there are exceptions, which I’ll address later on in this article). Instead, change enough detail that the family becomes unidentifiable. So, your young boy might become a young girl living with an alcoholic single father in Vancouver.

The critical thing in storytelling is to build an emotional connection with the reader, and you can do that just as well even if you change a few details. What’s important is to make sure that your story, despite its changed details, still includes five critical elements:

  • A protagonist (or hero): Whether this is a young girl or boy, in Ottawa or Vancouver, you still have a strong hero.
  • A problem: In either scenario, there isn’t enough food on the table and homework isn’t getting done.
  • An antagonist (or obstacle): The child is behind at school and not reaching their full potential.
  • Awareness (or an ‘aha’ moment): But wait, there’s hope! ABCD Charity helps people recover from addiction, while bringing resources to their families so that children like your hero can stay in school.
  • Transformation (or resolution): Because of the generous donations that make ABCD Charity’s work possible, our hero has graduated from law school at the top of his/her class.

Want to read just such a story (one complete with changed details)? Check out this one from the Education Foundation of Ottawa

Alternatives to the client story

But let’s be honest: sometimes you just can’t tell the stories of the people you help (perhaps there’s a policy against it, or you simply can’t get approval). This brings me to the second way that you can address issues of privacy and confidentiality: by telling your organization’s story from a different angle.

Let’s use ABCD Charity as an example again. We can’t tell a client’s story. Well, no problem. What about telling one of these stories, which are just as powerful, instead? 

I leave you with this: Your organization is richer in stories than you may realize. Think differently and jump out of your storytelling box. Your fundraising will be better for it.

If you’re interested in this topic, and others related to storytelling, be sure to check out the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference taking place in Seattle in November. I’ll be speaking, and so will a host of others.

Leah Eustace is principal and managing partner with Good Works. A “fundraiser’s fundraiser” with a wide background in charitable fund development, she’s worked with clients including the Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, CARE Canada and the UN Refugee Agency Canada on social media, direct marketing, donor research and legacy marketing.

She’s Past President of the Ottawa Chapter of AFP, President-Elect of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy-Canada, and a member of AHP, NTEN, the CMA and CAGP.

Contact her by email; follow @LeahEustace

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