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Are you practicing safe storytelling?

April 25, 2011

We’ve all had that experience where the same topic seems to come up over and over again in a very short period of time. For me right now, that topic is storytelling. 

A couple of months ago our chapter’s monthly educational luncheon focused on storytelling. I found myself thinking, I’m a grantwriter, I’ve been telling stories for years, I already know how to do this. Then just last month, the AFP International Conference on Fundraising in Chicago took as its byline “Stories to Inform, Teach and Inspire!” One of the sessions I attended was Craig Wortmann on “The Power of Story.” Craig rocked my world by saying that we over-use facts when what we really need to do is err of the side of telling more stories because stories give us the context for the facts.  Craig did such a good job telling his story that I immediately purchased his book “What’s Your Story?” and planned to dig into it right away.

But work got busy and here I sit a month later with “What’s Your Story?” sitting unopened on my desk. One of the things that’s been taking up a lot of time is the preparation for a big event for one of the community collaboratives that we facilitate. We’ve been talking to constituents, trying to find people who will tell about their experiences, giving them media training, and videotaping them. In short, getting them to tell their stories.

What I am finding is that getting people to tell their stories isn’t as easy as I thought it was. Not only are people busy, but in the case of this particular project, the stories we are dealing with are stories of personal tragedy. And since the project is examining racial disparities, the stories are being told by people in vulnerable populations.  These are heartbreaking stories but they need to be told if our community is going to understand the problem and come together to solve it.

The question is, how do we gather these important stories in an ethical way?  First and foremost, we must always use informed consent forms that fully explain what will be happening during the interview process and also what the interviews will be used for.  However, it is equally important to stay attuned to the feedback of participants throughout the process to check and reconfirm that they are comfortable with their decision to share their story.

Moving through a storytelling process with clients can feel like navigating a complex maze where no one has gone before.  That’s why I was pleased to encounter several recent blog posts on the subject of the ethics of storytelling that help steer the way. Thaler Pekar’s two-part piece for PhilanTopic on ethical storysharing provides an excellent overview of the topic. And Cynthia Kurtz gives some practical follow-up examples in her blog Story Colored Glasses.

None of us would knowingly coerce someone into telling their story, but these short posts show how to avoid situations in which people might feel as if that were the case.  We must always remember, as fundraisers or researchers, that these stories belong to the people who are telling them, not to us.

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