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People-Centered Storytelling: Raising the Bar in Charitable Communications

Written by: Kate Kardol

We’ve all been there. We return from a two-week service trip rife with stories from our adventures overseas. We account of the treacherous bus rides we nearly survived, the new, exotic foods we were exposed to, and the people and stories we encountered along the way. Although when communicating these stories to our family and friends, many times we misrepresent the people behind them by reducing their stories to stereotypes and Facebook albums. We forget that they are accounts of actual people’s lives, lived daily, full of the same joys and pains, excitement and frustrations as we experience.

Unfortunately, the charitable world is often guilty of stereotyping and generalizing these stories as well. We boil people’s stories down into mushy, feel-good pieces that benefit our donors and organization’s goals, but remain incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. Sure, it is an impossible feat to condense the life experiences of a person into one donor-engaging 700-word piece, but there are ways, as the storytellers of our organizations, that we can maintain the dignity of those impacted by our work while still reaching our fundraising goals.

The people-centered storytelling approach.

Every charitable organization has a story to tell about their work and the people it impacts. Human-interest stories and visual media draw people into the organization’s story, helping them get a sense of their impact, and connect on some level with people worlds away through our common human experiences.  Stories, both through words and media, can be so powerful, that renowned writer, Robert McKee, says in his book, Story, that stories are, “the currency of human contact.”

4 Suggestions on how can we incorporate people-centered storytelling into our charitable work

1. Remember the people whose lives we share with our audiences are actual people.

Sounds simple, right? Well, too often this most basic fact is overlooked. Instead, we grow accustomed to seeing the lives our work impacts in fractions and viewing them as subjects for our blog posts and donor updates, shaving off the bits that don’t fit into our agenda. This sends the message:

“Jane’ was poor and alone, and then X organization came and made it all better!”

We capture the perfect photo and hit the road, barely looking back as we send our story off to a colleague where it’s tweaked further and pasted on some well-designed publication. But what about Jane? Did we represent her well? Simply remembering that there is great depth to people’s experiences and acknowledging them as whole beings that have lived before and will live long after our programs will surely impact the way we tell their stories.

2. Don’t be afraid to highlight the low moments, the failures, and the so-so successes.

Organizations habitually feel compelled to capture the ‘rags to riches’ accounts, similar to Jane’s example. But, again, this paints an inaccurate picture as it tells only a fraction of the story. Our well-planned, well-funded programs barge into people’s lives promising change, but sometimes change is minimal, and (dare I say it?) that’s okay! So let’s acknowledge that change can be difficult. In other words, let’s not be afraid to also tell the stories that don’t sell.

3. Be conscious of what is being communicated through visual media.

We’ve all seen the images of children, skin and bones, staring helplessly into the camera. The images of such children elicit an array of emotions that motivate people to give. And they should. Immense suffering exists, and the gravities of these experiences need to be exposed. However, there is a time and a place. We should not fall into the trap of using such images as tools for connecting with donors. We have a responsibility for documenting the context of our work, while ensuring that our stories and media are edifying, empowering, and accurate.

Luckily, many charitable organizations are grasping this philosophy and applying stricter policies, such as Love146 as seen in theirCommunications About Children policy. Matt Collin, creator of the blog Aid Thoughts, also offers some great insights to this topic.

4. Turn the tables.

What’s the easiest way to know if you are representing those impacted by your work from a people-centered approach? Turn the tables and ask the question, “How would I feel if this was my life represented?” Would I feel it was empowering and respectful or did it reduce me to a stereotype or an image simply to elicit donations? Turning the tables can be a great exercise to evaluate what message your organization is really sending.

People-centered communication is possible!

Let’s not be discouraged. We can still engage our donor audience and welcome people to join our organization’s story while also offering dignity and respect to the people who freely share their stories with us, simply by consciously putting them at the center of all we do.

For more info and training on charity writing, marketing and media, check out ngo.media.

Kate Kardol is an independent writer, copyeditor, and photographer with a focus on charity communications, currently living in Switzerland where she is working on her M.A. in International Development. Kate can be reached at kate.kardol@gmail.com.

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  • Hegly

    Ms. Kardol hit it right on the head. Janes story and children staring at cameras might raise money, but it is the sacrifice, dedication and hard work of the people behind the scenes that can make a difference. Ms. Kardol knows how to say it.

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