Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits

When we embark upon what’s known in the nonprofit world as “donation season,” chances are that your organization thinks about putting together a fundraising video or other media that demonstrates the impact of your work.

Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits
9 mins read

Showcase your nonprofit’s good work while still honoring the people it serves.

When we embark upon what’s known in the nonprofit world as “donation season,” chances are that your organization thinks about putting together a fundraising video or other media that demonstrates the impact of your work.

When I became the in-house Media & Communications Manager at my last nonprofit, I produced those fundraising videos, program photos, and other visual media to promote the organization’s mission.

My experience as a young person who participated in the organization’s programming helped me frame my work documenting other young people’s experiences. However, I wasn’t given any guidance on how to do this work ethically, and I found myself questioning whether I was collecting media in a way that honored the participants, rather than tokenized them for marketing and fundraising.

These toxic patterns of tokenism and saviorism that we see replicated time and time again dehumanize and disempower the people we are trying to uplift in our work.

What do tokenism and saviorism look like?

We need to admit from the start that fundraising at nonprofits has long been built on inflicting the dynamics of tokenism and saviorism on primarily BIPOC communities.

I’ve been on both sides of the camera: producing the fundraising video and being in the fundraising video. Tokenism and saviorism appear in our approach to storytelling when we solicit stories of trauma and adversity for the financial benefit of the nonprofit (and often without pay for the storyteller). Saviorism views the storyteller as someone to be “saved,” and acts as though the nonprofit itself is responsible for pulling people out of adverse circumstances, rather than the people themselves being advocates for their own life paths.

There’s nothing wrong with asking someone to share their story, but it must be approached with care and a deep understanding of the potential harm that could arise to storytellers.

It is important to highlight an individual’s strengths, agency, and personal empowerment. We do not need to exploit trauma for financial gain. Let’s embrace a strength-based storytelling process that empowers participants to tell their own stories, in their own way—instead of nonprofits telling their story for them.

Tips for ethical storytelling

Here are some best practices based on my experiences over six years of storytelling for nonprofits and being a documentary filmmaker.

Note: These practices are framed around storytelling in a video format but can be applied to all storyteller relationships that you build at your organization.

Involve the right people in the planning stage.

The work of storytelling should never be entirely led by an outside party or by the development team alone. Make sure you include the people closest to the groundwork in the planning process (program managers, teaching artists, partners, etc.), because they will have the closest relationships with potential storytellers. Consider a current or former participant in your programs to consult on the project (and be sure to pay them).If you need to hire someone to take care of the technical video or photo aspect of the storytelling, find someone who approaches storytelling as a collaborative process. While they handle the technical work, your team maintains an important role in creating safety and comfort in the filming environment.

Treat stories as a collaboration; you are never telling someone’s story for them.

Once you identify your storytellers, include them in every aspect of the process from beginning to end. Begin your relationship building by scheduling a time to meet them and conduct a pre-interview if possible. Tell them why you value their unique perspective and ask them questions to learn more about their specific experiences. Your questions should frame the storyteller for the strengths they bring to your programs and illuminate how your programs’ reach has extended by the storyteller’s participation, rather than framing the storyteller as someone who came in with nothing and was “saved” by your program. During the editing stage, send them drafts of the media that they can approve before going public. This allows storytellers to make sure that how you’ve edited down their interview makes sense and represents them in a way that they feel comfortable. Remember that your internal team members are not the sole or final decision-makers.

Clearly outline how the media will be used.

Just because you collect a blanket media release doesn’t mean it’s ethical to use the story in ways outside of what the storyteller agrees to. This is where your legal rights coincide with your ethical obligations.Inform the participants if you plan to play the video at a fundraising event and make them aware of who makes up the audience. If you plan to post the video publicly, or make a derivative version of the work, make sure you get consent beforehand.A note on working with minors: legally, you must involve caretakers in obtaining consent for minors. However, this doesn’t mean that minors shouldn’t be involved in the process at all. Older children and teenagers are very much capable of giving you feedback on how they are represented, so you shouldn’t discount their involvement in giving consent.

Always pay for the rights to share a story.

If you can’t afford to compensate people for sharing their stories, then you should not ask them. Storytelling requires time and emotional labor. Consider that some people may be losing money or time spent elsewhere by choosing to spend it with you. Value their time as much as you would when paying any other contractor for their services and pay them accordingly.A note on ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics suggests not to pay for access to news. However, you are not paying a source to report on news. You are paying someone for work.

Frame everything through an accessible, people-centered lens.

Respect your storyteller’s needs. When dealing with emotionally heavy content, it’s important to let storytellers know in advance (and remind them in the moment) that they do not have to share beyond their comfort and can take a break at any point. Building in enough time with ample breaks to rest, providing food, and checking on specific accommodations beforehand are critical to providing a safe and supportive atmosphere.The more accessibility you build into the process, the better everyone’s needs will be met.

Shift your language.

Language is important. Calling someone a “storyteller” (which I’ve been using throughout this article), hero (like on the Netflix show Queer Eye), or even participant (which implies their collaborative action in participating) versus a “subject” is a way to honor their contribution rather than just being part of the product.Whatever you use, make sure the storyteller is comfortable with the term, even if you only use this term internally.

Check in.

This is important. Your relationship with storytellers does not end when your fundraiser is over. Make sure you take time to thank them for their participation and ask for any feedback about the process. Keep in contact and celebrate their accomplishments and offer as much support as possible when needed.

Reflect and adapt.

The process won’t be perfect every time, and there is no set formula that works for everyone. Take time internally to reflect on how your process went, including what went well and what could be improved for next time.

These tips can be a starting point for more ethical storytelling at your organization. But remember that the work is ongoing and requires a serious commitment from everyone to shift from saviorism to strength-based storytelling. By approaching the process with care, you can ensure that it is a positive experience for everyone involved.

In case you missed it…

How to Use Asset-Framing to Strengthen Nonprofit Work

About the Author

Amy L. Piñon ( is a filmmaker, photographer, audio engineer, and visual storyteller. Born and raised in Seattle, she has been deeply embedded in the arts and cultural scene her entire life and brings her unique perspective, identities, and experiences into every space that she enters. She also mentors young artists in vocal technique with the youth record label Totem Star, while making time to sing every day as a healing practice. Her priority in every project is to uplift authentic representations of everyone’s stories by building trust and partnership in the storytelling process. Follow her @amylpproductions.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

3 thoughts on “Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits

  1. So how would you have a child (sometimes as young as 5 years old or a teen who are being held (and even shackled to a bed) in a brothel and used as a sex slave having to service sometimes up to 20 men a day… share their story? I have been going undercover to rescue precious children like this for years. I consider myself a “voice” for them. I will share with people that I am a “beggar.” I beg for children who cannot beg for themselves because they held behind locked doors. They have no computer or phone or any way whatsoever to communicate with the outside world. It’s my hope to be used in a way by telling their stories to see them set free from their bondage so that one day after their long healing process they can tell their stories on their own if they choose to.

    1. It’s illegal for children to typically tell their stories without some form of guardian consent. My suggestion is to work with an organization that works with rescuing and supporting children who have been trafficked.

  2. This was really great. So much to think about and consider and really nice to see these issues be brought up. I will be sharing. Thank you.

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