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  • Writer's pictureCarly Roberton

Ethical storytelling: for fundraisers, it’s non-negotiable

Where would you be without your stories of impact?

Stories bring your cause to life, pull at the heart strings and move people to respond. They are crucial to raising awareness about your mission, and of course, raising funds.

The best stories are about transformation. But sharing these stories can be risky. They must be told in a way that respects the dignity and rights of the people you serve. Otherwise, you risk breaking their trust and undoing the good you have achieved.

For fundraisers, ethical storytelling is non-negotiable. If you want to share your stories with confidence and integrity, here are five key questions to consider:

Q1 - Do they know what they’re signing up to?

Getting consent to share someone’s story is a no-brainer. But you must go a step further than simply asking them to sign a consent form. Consent must be informed.

So, what does informed consent mean? Firstly, do they know what they’re signing up to? You must be clear about the purpose and format of the story, how it will be used, who it will be shared with, and for how long.

Will the story include photos and direct quotes? Where will it be published? Is it being sent to a small group of supporters, or is it going to a wider unknown audience? Will the story be published on your website and shared on social media (and what channels)? And how long will it be published for?

The more information you can provide the better. That way there will be no surprises once the piece has been published. The worst thing would be for them to stumble across their story in a space they didn’t expect!

Q2 - Do they really want to share their story?

Most of the time, people are more than willing to share their story - especially if there was a positive outcome. But you don’t want them to feel obliged to say yes and regret it further down the track. And when the story involves content that might be sensitive, you need to be particularly cautious.

So, during the consent process, make sure you dig deep to find out if they really want to share their story. That means helping them understand the potential implications once the piece is published.

Ask them to put the piece you're going to publish into the context of their everyday life. How will they feel if their family, friends or colleagues read the story? And is there anyone in their life who they don’t want to read it?

If you pick up on any hesitation about the story or the way that it's going to be published, you need to sensitively explore this with them and remind them that without their full informed consent, the piece you’re creating won't be shared. Based on what they say and do next, you'll need to decide whether to move forward or not.

Q3 - Does the story reinforce bias and incorrect perceptions?

When crafting the story, consider whether it reinforces bias and incorrect perceptions about individuals, communities or cultures. It can be a delicate line to walk! What might seem like a minor word choice can be damaging in ways we often can’t imagine, especially if we’re coming from a place of privilege.

That includes not over simplifying or stereotyping, and choosing language that is respectful and promotes dignity. Across both copy and images, frame the hero of your story as resilient, resourceful and capable of overcoming challenges, rather than as a helpless victim.

Q4 - Have I checked in before hitting publish?

To bring your ethical storytelling journey full circle, you’re going to need to check back in with your client.

That includes sharing proposed copy and design with them for approval before it’s published. Ask them if there is anything they want to add, change or remove, and remind them where it’s going to be published and double check that’s still ok. Giving them the final say puts the power back in their hands.

If, on the rare occasion, they decide to revoke their consent, this will need to be handled very sensitively. Of course, where possible, you must be prepared to make corrections to stories, delete social media posts, or update web pages, at any time.

But if the piece has already gone to print and has hit mailboxes, the practical reality of removing a story from the light of day is near impossible. In this situation, open and honest communication is a must.

Q5 - Where does AI fit into ethical storytelling?

The use of AI has opened a can of worms when it comes to ethical storytelling. A growing number of charities are using AI for image generation. Partly for practical reasons (it’s more affordable than a photographer!), but also for ethical reasons - AI images protect the privacy of beneficiaries as they’re not real people.

But here’s where the ethical dilemma comes in: do you disclose whether the images are AI or not? A fascinating study was recently conducted which revealed that not disclosing that the images are AI resulted in a greater response. It makes sense. People will emotionally connect more to the story if they believe the photos are of real people.

But is this risky? We would argue that yes it is, and that the risk far outweighs the potential gains. If a donor finds out that the photos are AI, then this could seriously impact their trust in your organisation.

Just like we disclose if a name has been changed to protect identities, we recommend disclosing that the images are AI. But make sure you explain why. If the donor knows it was to protect identities, and even to save money, then the decision to use AI makes perfect sense. See it as an opportunity to educate your donors!

Share your stories with integrity and confidence

At Precision Fundraising, ethical storytelling is a journey we’re on like many of you. And with any journey there are ups and downs and loads to learn, especially with emerging technologies like AI.

Our intention is to stay ahead of the trends and share our learnings with you so we can both tell your stories with integrity and confidence - building trust for the people you serve, and your donors.

If you want to discuss how we can support you on your storytelling journey, including making sure your stories are ethical, please reach out today.

For a useful guide on ethical storytelling, we recommend the EquaStory™ Framework.

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