Ethical Storytelling + Nonprofit Fundraising

Telling one person’s emotionally compelling success story through an appeal video can be the single most powerful way to inspire donors to give generously.

There’s even scientific research to back this up!

But asking someone, especially someone who is already in a vulnerable situation, to share what is typically a deeply personal and sensitive story can create a host of ethical dilemmas. How can we help people share their stories in ways that empower them and inspire donors without exploiting their struggle and pain? How can we make storytellers feel safe and trust that their stories will be told with the utmost respect and in a way that they would want them to be told?

As professional video storytellers who work almost exclusively with nonprofit organizations, we continue to learn the best, most ethical ways to approach storytellers, how to build trust and establish a safe space for stories to unfold, and how to create a thoughtful storytelling process from beginning to end.

Below we have outlined a few key strategies for ethical storytelling, along with some specific guidelines on the full video production process that you can consider.

Key Points

Don’t try to tell someone’s story for them. Instead, create space for them to tell their own story. We are all our own best storytellers.
Center your storyteller, not the organization. Make sure the appeal truly reflects the storyteller’s voice. Be open to stories that don’t fit your preconceptions.
Ethical and empowering storytelling is also BETTER and more effective storytelling for fundraising! When the story comes from a truly sincere and unscripted perspective, that’s when it really hits the donors in the feels.
Make ethical storytelling an integral part of your organization’s culture. Help everyone on your staff understand how important stories are for effective fundraising and exactly what your process is for protecting and empowering storytellers.
● Consider using a trauma-informed approach with your storytellers:

o Safety
o Trustworthiness and transparency
o Peer support
o Collaboration and mutuality
o Empowerment and choice
o Cultural, historical, and gender issues

Ethical steps to consider in your video production process:


● Make ethical storytelling part of your organization’s culture.

○ Get buy-in from program staff through transparency and collaboration. Let them know that you want potential storytellers to be empowered to tell their own stories.

● Approach storytellers with transparency and collaboration.

○ The more they understand what to expect, the more likely they are to get on board.
○ Be clear that this is for fundraising purposes and emphasize that they are helping the organization help more people.

● Avoid telling savior stories: focus on how people used your organization to help themselves, not on how your organization helped them.
● Be very clear with storytellers about the process and that they have agency every step of the way.

○ Check out this “Storyteller’s Bill of Rights” created by the PSU Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative

● Consider showcasing your appreciation for the storyteller’s time and effort by covering transportation costs, providing meal/s or a small gift certificate as a thank you.
● Consider working with culturally-specific video producers who reflect the lived experience or identity of your storyteller.


● Video crews should have clear COVID-19 safety protocols that are shared with everyone involved in filming.
● Make sure the storyteller feels safe and comfortable and gets to choose where and when they are interviewed and filmed. Including COVID-19 considerations, of course (see above)!
● Have someone the storyteller knows and has a relationship with at the filming, maybe even have that person do the interview.
● Don’t use “actors” for b-roll. If anonymity is required, see if you can just film hands and feet and backs of heads. Audiences (donors) can tell when it’s not real and it takes away from the emotional connection.
● Approach the filming as a collaboration between your storyteller, organizational staff, and the videographer—this creates a more equitable and comfortable atmosphere to help the story come forward in a way that feels good to everyone.


● Edit the story with respect and openness in a way that honors the storyteller’s perspective and centers their story (and not the organization’s programs).
● It’s okay to include complexities that paint a fuller picture of the storyteller. Don’t reinforce stereotypes by trying to fit someone’s story into a perfect box.
● You can’t keep every part of the story in the video—the best fundraising videos are under 5 minutes—but consider your storyteller throughout the process and think about how you would feel explaining your edits to them.
● Keep storytellers involved. Give them a prior review before the event and afterward, encourage them to share the video with friends and family. Be sure to let them know if you use their story again in the future.
● Share the finished product widely with your staff—especially any program staff who helped bring the story together. This helps you build on a culture of trust in storytelling at your organization and reminds your colleagues why you do what you do every day.

This article was inspired by a panel discussion on Ethical Storytelling at the Swaim Strategies Elevate fundraising conference in August 2020. It was co-authored by three members of that panel: Anna Bird and Jessica Ridgway, who represented the Swaim Strategies creative team, and Zach Putnam from ZP Productions. We all love nonprofit storytelling and would love to talk with you about your experiences, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment or reach out to us directly.


Swaim Strategies
We believe in the power of bringing people together to create movements and raise support for your mission.
ZP Productions
We are an award-winning team of filmmakers, passionate about telling moving stories that matter, for nonprofits, NGOs and other mission-driven organizations.

One Response to “Ethical Storytelling + Nonprofit Fundraising”

  1. My career in nonprofit storytelling began at my transition out of homelessness. I was a program participant in a small arts nonprofit organization and as an 18-year-old formerly homeless, queer, non-binary, Indigenous person who used to sell drugs, my story was clearly a testament to the organization’s success, and it became the story they would sell to donors.


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