Human language

Three stories nonprofit leaders should avoid

Nonprofit executives and chief marketing officers are tasked with telling the stories of the organization’s impact. These stories are used in one-on-one meetings with donors, events and annual reports, support cases, thank-you letters, publicity, marketing and more. It’s not uncommon for the entire communication plan to be built around stories.

Stories are the basis of good fundraising and friendship. In other words, nonprofits don’t function well without them. For this reason, nonprofit leaders need to tell as many stories as they can as often as they can.

But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are not good for the organization or the person behind the story.

There are three stories nonprofit leaders want to avoid to make sure they care for the people who trust them at their most vulnerable times and to make sure they don’t oversell the depth. services.

Exploitation stories – It is a privilege for a person to share their story with a non-profit organization. History belongs to those who lived it. The voice of the customer is paramount. People who have received services are inclined to reciprocate by sharing, but this becomes exploitative when nonprofit leaders believe they own a client’s story. The nonprofit’s right (if any) to speak about its impact does not outweigh the client’s right to privacy and healing – as it is never acceptable to interview clients living still in the middle of their situation. This type of story appears a lot in agencies representing domestic violence, homelessness, the elderly, and underserved populations. Placing the interests of the association above those of the client strips the client of their humanity and perpetuates stereotypes about already marginalized groups.

Avoid this story by not rewriting the customer experience into a false narrative. Keep the most intimate details of a customer’s identity hidden. Are you asking if I am sharing the story for the benefit of the client or the nonprofit organization? The answer is both. If only one side benefits, rethink the approach. A client’s dignity must remain intact before and after the story.

hero stories – This is the story most often told by nonprofits. It’s more like this: A person comes in with a problem. We have done all the work. We changed their lives. We are the best to ever do it. Give us money. In this story, the customer gets lost. The association sets itself up as a hero and gives all the glory to its program and its service. In a story, there can only be one hero. If the nonprofit is in this position, where does the client fit in? When serving underserved populations, the hero story is problematic because it sets up a savior narrative that can be biased with racial undertones.

Avoid this story by understanding that the customer is and has always been the hero of their own journey. The association helps them to become the best of themselves. The services of the association have put in place a better way. The association does not save people. They run away.

Happy forever – Whatever the mission of the organization, there is no easy solution. Similar to the hero story, after clients receive services, they are in a better position, but they are not fixed. It’s a fairy tale tale that doesn’t hold up in the real world to some of the conditions people face when they need a nonprofit. It sends the message that the nonprofit has the solutions to all problems, which is a lie. Be careful when assuming responsibility for a client’s sustenance after their services.

Avoid this story by making sure to recount an incident or encounter that ended well or better. Avoid overly crude conclusions. Talk about the series of small actions they did for their greater good.

A nonprofit executive’s work to appeal to all voters means stories are non-negotiable. Stories are human language. The trick is to find common ground between sharing the good works of the association and respecting the person sharing the story. Do that in a true and compelling narrative and you’re well on your way to developing the greatest stories ever told.


Written by Shereese Floyd.

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