Is That Really True? Storytelling Ethics Part 2

Well vacation and a mountain of work came between two pieces I had hoped to post a little closer together, but I do want to follow up on my earlier post on storytelling ethics, with a set of basic rules to follow for nonprofits. Those rules are a great start, but I don't think that's the end of the discussion at all. Because when I was asked the question, it brought up a lot of other, related ideas about storytelling, ethics and the nature of truth and fiction that I think are valuable to explore.

What is truth?

If you work for a nonprofit of any size, you probably see hundreds of stories coming through your organization each year. And I'm willing to bet that many, many of these stories have a commonality to them that can, sometimes, make them seem indistinguishable from each other.

It's probably easy for you to generalize about the people you serve: "Our clients are predominantly [insert three adjectives that describe the typical constituent here]."

So is that generalization true?

What if you put the generalization into story form by creating an amalgam? Could you give it a name, a set of circumstances and a story arc and still call it "true"?

I've worked for organizations that had no problem with this definition of the truth, believing that slavish adherence to the details of the stories in their organizations undermined the true spirit of their work. I've also worked for organizations that would never, ever consider using an amalgam, certain that it was lying to their donors.

Truth in Fiction

It may be because I am a fiction writer as well as a copywriter that I fall more into the first camp than the second.

Think about memoir for a second. Memoir is generally considered to be a form of nonfiction. But memoirists also take liberties with dates, places, names and timelines in order to create a more cohesive story, while staying true to the overarching themes of their work. Looking at it another way, memoirists lie to preserve the truth.

And some of the "truest" writing I've read is fiction. Sure, the facts may not be there, but truths of what it means to be human are often found in fiction, and can serve to inspire as well as -- or sometimes better than -- nonfiction.


But we're talking about nonprofit storytelling here, not memoir, not fiction. Making up stories whole cloth and pretending they actually happened in your organization will not serve your purpose well.

Lying is a crummy thing to do to your donors. It betrays their trust and is an extremely poor way to repay their generosity.

Still, it is extremely easy to turn a compelling story into a boring collection of facts. And while your donors never deserve to be lied to, you certainly don't want to put them to sleep.

So as I mentioned earlier, use the constraints of the truth to up your creative game. Remember to hit as many of the five senses as you can. If you're interviewing someone, really listen to what they're saying about how they felt so you can convey that to your donors.

Your organization's storytelling ethics deserve careful thought and consideration. Make sure you can justify your stance -- to your board, to your employees, and above all, to your donors.

And, as always, be creative about how you tow that line. Nonprofit storytelling should be about taking your donors on a journey with you, not just about telling a story and asking for money.