Recently the New York Times Magazine published a story "Bad Art Friend" which is a complicated tale of two writers -Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. One writer, Dawn Dorland, donated a kidney to a stranger and wrote a post about the experience in the private Facebook group for writers, including Sonya Larson. Larson wrote a short story about a person who donates a kidney to a stranger. In the story, Larson's is alleged to have used many parts of Dorland's letter. The whole drama raged on social media with plenty of opinions. The bigger issue the Dorland/Larson story raises is "who gets to tell a story?"
The charity sector thrives on storytelling. In fact, there is a whole conference that is just devoted to nonprofit storytelling. While the our sector loves a good story, like Larson, we aren't always particularly careful about making sure that we take in account the feelings, experiences, and views of the people whose story we are telling. Like writers, workers in the charity sector regularly tell stories of others.
One of the many questions you need to ask yourself when you work for a charity is whether the person is fully in control of their story. For example, if someone has benefitted from the services of your organization, they may not want to tell their story but they may feel beholden to your charity. This power dynamic is not considered often enough in charity circles.
Another issue to consider is how you engage in telling a person's story when they are willing to share it. Should you edit their story for length or use the whole thing? Should you faithfully stick to the words they use or is it ok to tweak it? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself before using another person's story.
In addition to these areas, one way that charities tend to fall down is in the final two steps. It is a rare charity that allows enough time in their process to allow a person to review how their own story is going to be used and also to give them the right to decide not to use the story. Most charities are so rushed and last minute, they either skip or skimp on this step.
You don't have to be a Bad Fundraising Friend. By employing a clear understanding of power dynamics, integrity, and lead time, you can help ensure that you are respecting the storytellers for your charity.
Ann Rosenfield is a working fundraiser and the editor of Hilborn Charity eNews.