Nearly a month ago, I went to an amazing webinar on “Ethical Storytelling.” I immediately liked the presenter, partly because she had an unusual name (like me!) but mostly because the content she shared was intriguing and challenging.
I thought, “Hmmmm. Would my dear church readers – who are well-versed in storytelling – perhaps be interested in this information?” Of course, you’d be interested!
So, I invited Caliopy (Cal-ee-OH-pee) Glaros to an interview. First, here’s what you need to know about Caliopy:
Caliopy is the founder and Principal Consultant at Philanthropy without Borders, a firm that specializes in donor engagement and is based in Portland, OR. Her work is informed by her experience as a front-line fundraiser, cross-cultural trainer, and former recipient of nonprofit services. She has worked in nearly 60 countries around the world and has delivered workshops on ethical storytelling to small volunteer-run organizations as well as large multi-national charities.
Caliopy mainly works with secular organizations. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and with some added emphasis.
Cesie: What exactly is “ethical storytelling”?
Caliopy: I believe the concept of ethical storytelling originated in journalism, with a policy not unlike the Hippocratic oath, to essentially “do no harm.” In storytelling that means protecting informant’s privacy, portraying people with dignity, ensuring accuracy by fact-checking the details, etc. But in the world of nonprofit fundraising and marketing, I believe ethical storytelling has a different meaning.
“Do no harm” is really the bare minimum.
“Do no harm” is really the bare minimum, and if we want to level-up we must also be providing value to our story contributors, and our audiences. That doesn’t necessarily mean monetary value (though it is a good idea to offer people stipends for their time). What it means is that those who shared their stories with our organizations feel they had an enriching experience, not an extractive one. It also means that our audiences felt like they learned something from our stories. That’s really a step above “do no harm” and requires so much more intention on the part of the organization telling those stories.
Why is telling ethical stories important?
Ethical storytelling is important for our sector because we are often working in conditions – and with groups of people – that are so misunderstood. Many of the stereotypes and narratives that we’ve been exposed to in our lives did not originate in the nonprofit sector, but they deeply impact the people featured in the stories told by nonprofits. If it is truly the mandate of our organizations to bring relief to some of the most pressing issues of our time, then one aspect of our missions must be to push back against those unhelpful narratives. I believe storytelling has the power to change beliefs and behaviors, and those are the things that really need to change in order to tackle the big structural issues that perpetuate the very problems we are working to solve.
“Testimonies” (or telling stories of change and transformation) in the church has been a long-held practice. What suggestions do you have on ways to gather stories that tell the story well and that are ethical?
I think that for such profoundly personal stories, it’s great to have a system where people can opt-in to share them, rather than receive a personal request. If there’s a mechanism where they can “raise their hands,” so to speak, and volunteer to have their stories featured, that would be best. From there, you really want to let them tell the story the way they want it told.
Make sure to also ask aspirational questions.
Of course, you can guide them with specific questions that help bring out some of the content you think will be important for the audience, but you do want to make sure the storyteller feels that the final story represents their intention. Make sure to also ask aspirational questions, like “What do you want the audience to know?” instead of just factual or historical questions. If you can, show them the story and ask for edits before it gets published. Keep in touch with them and share the impact that the story had on the audience.
What’s your biggest pet peeve when you see a “bad” story?
I wouldn’t want to classify a story as “bad” – I think we’re all doing our best and this is incredibly hard work. However, just like we have “best practices” we can have “bad practices” too. And one practice that ought to change is promising our donors radical results for 25 cents or boasting that none of their money goes to salaries or administrative costs, as if those are terrible things. This is harming our sector by giving donors the impression that transformational impact is cheap and fast, which we know it isn’t, and it further gives our donors the impression that paying for the labor of people who do this critical work is a bad thing.
Many of the big organizations say things like, “A handful of generous people fund all of our overhead costs, so every penny you give goes directly to our projects.” Well, that’s wonderful, but how many organizations can say that truthfully? Not many can, and they shouldn’t be punished for it. Our donors are really our partners in change making, and we would do better to set accurate expectations to act and to build more credibility as a sector.
I encourage congregations to use photographs when they tell stories in writing. Do you have any suggestions on best practices for using photos?
Typically, when we use photographs, we need to ask the featured person to sign a Media Consent Form. If you are using a digital camera, show that person the photo and get their approval. Make sure to tell them how the photo will be used: if it will be up on the website or on social media or in printed brochures. Let them know that it’s OK to change their minds later on if they decide they don’t want their photo to be used. While we can’t recall printed materials, we can take someone’s photo off the website if they change their mind, so make sure they know they have that option.
Can you point us to a congregation or a non-profit that’s doing a good job with ethical storytelling?
The ones I know who are doing a great job have very collaborative processes behind the scenes. They really think strategically about who is featured, what stories they are telling, and what stories they are not telling. They design a process where the story contributors have a lot of agency in how their stories get told. It’s impossible to merely look at an organization’s website or social media feed to determine whether they have a good ethical storytelling process. What happens behind the scenes is just as important - if not more important - than what the audience sees.
[Good storytellers] design a process where the story contributors have a lot of agency in
how their stories get told.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You can find a lot of free resources online here:
Exploitation-Empathy Continuum for Nonprofits
Checklist – Empathy in Communications
3 Levels of Ethical Storytelling
The Diagram of Ethical Storytelling Excellence
3 Steps for Equitable Editing in Storytelling
10 Tips for Equity in Interviewing
Empathy Is Not the Endgame
What You Thought Was Empathy Was Actually Sympathy
Cesie: Many thanks, Caliopy, for your time and leadership in helping us to engage in better and more ethical storytelling. Storytelling can be tricky but the rewards of doing it well can be transformational for both the story-teller and the story-reader/listener. Thanks for giving those of us who work in the church and with various non-profits some important things to think about.
Reminder: Mark Elsdon Webinar! Some of you may remember that I did an interview with Mark Elsdon, the author of We Aren’t Broke (one of my favorite books of 2021). The Cascadia District Extension Society of the OR-ID Annual Conference of the UMC (a committee I serve on) has invited Mark to speak. And…you’re invited! Thursday, February 24, 10-11am (PST). Sign-up here. For more information, check out the flyer.