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Nonprofit Storytelling at a Fundraiser: Asking a Customer to Speak

You have likely heard that one of the most powerful ways to raise funds at a nonprofit event, and through written communications, is with a personal story.  

Stories are a powerful tool. Personal stories have the power to move hearts. A good story draws the audience into an experience that helps them to empathize with the person speaking. The listener begins to understand the shared hopes and fears, dreams, and desires with the speaker. When we feel empathy, we are moved to act. 

Like a good book or movie, storytelling makes the personal universal and the universal personal. We relate through story because we connect to the truths the stories tell.  If the storyteller is someone who has benefitted from your services, the audience at your event will be inspired to donate because they want to have an impact on someone’s life. They want to make a difference.  

But sometimes in the effort to share the powerful stories of our beneficiaries, we run the risk of causing further harm.  

The Danger of Exploitation

We’ve all seen the television commercials of the famished dogs with somber music playing in the background as a voice-over asks for donations to help save them. The commercials can be heart wrenching – and are very effective fundraising tools. Donors want to be the heroes that stop the suffering of these animals in need.  

When we work with people, however, we must be careful to not capitalize on the pain and suffering of an individual to tug at the heart strings of our donors. We cannot fall prey to trauma porn – the practice of highlighting and even exaggerating someone’s trauma or pain to raise funds.  

Sharing traumatic experiences and stories of difficulty can reopen wounds and cause further harm. No amount of money is worth that.  

You’ve been told a good story is the quickest way to move hearts. What are you to do if you don’t want to exploit the people you serve? 

Create a Culture of Individual Agency

  • As an organization, acknowledge and speak to any societal systems that have led to the injustice and inequities of the situations creating the need for your services. Shift the blame to the appropriate root causes. 
  • Recognize the power dynamic at play. You never want to create an environment where an individual feels pressured to share or that they will be denied services or frowned upon if they don’t wish to participate. 
  • Consider creating an open invitation to participants to tell and record their stories. By offering an open invitation, you remove the pressure of a direct ask for someone who would prefer not to tell their story.  

Nonprofit Storytelling at a Fundraiser: Asking a Customer to Speak

Find a Storyteller

A Former Program Recipient 

Reach out to an individual who has benefited from your organization’s services in the past but who has moved on to another phase in life.  

Because the person has distance from the traumatic situation, they may feel more empowered, and have the perspective to share how your organization helped them get to a better place. They may be willing to share – as a means to pay it forward, give back, or express gratitude.  

A Current Program Recipient 

Inviting a current program participant to share their story can be delicate.  

If you’ve created an open invitation for everyone to record, write, or share their story in some fashion over time, approaching someone who has already told their story could be an easier conversation.  

Prepare properly

In either case, be careful to respect the boundaries of the storyteller. They are the owners of their narrative. Do not push for them to reveal more than they wish to share.  

Remember to: 

  1. Acknowledge, with the speaker that time is money, and that you will respect their time. 
  2. Provide the individual with a list of the questions you will be asking or that you hope they will speak to – before they agree to participate and well in advance of the event.
  3. If you are conducting an interview or helping the individual prepare for the speaking engagement, ensure that they feel safe to speak freely and openly – and to renege on the arrangement at any time. 
  4. Allow for ample time during the review of talking points or any rehearsal (if the speaker wants) in case the speaker needs a break or needs to shift gears. 

To further avoid exploiting a program recipient, create a policy to reimburse the individual for any expenses they might incur to speak for you (travel, babysitting, apparel). Also, recognizing that because time is money, compensate them for their time and participation – pay them a stipend or give them a gift card.  

Final Thoughts 

By asking someone to share their story at your event, you are asking them to be vulnerable, to reveal wounds and scars, and to entrust your audience with their truth.  

We cannot take this lightly.  

Rather, as nonprofit leaders, we must enter into the entire process with profound respect for the storyteller – and remember that we are standing on holy ground.  

Published: December 6, 2021

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