C-Suite Advisory

Three Stories Nonprofit executives 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-to-one donor meetings, annual events and reports, cases for support, thank you letters, advertising, marketing and more. It is not uncommon for the whole communication plan to be built around stories.

Stories are the foundation of good fundraising and friendraising. Simply put, nonprofits don’t function well without them. Because of this, nonprofit executives 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 executives want to avoid to ensure to take care of the people who have entrusted them at their most vulnerable times and to ensure they are not overly selling the depth of services.

Exploitive Stories – It is a privilege for a person to share their story with a nonprofit. The story belongs to the person who experienced it. The client’s voice is paramount. People who have received services are inclined to return the favor by sharing but this becomes exploitative when nonprofit executives believe they have ownership of a client’s story. The nonprofits’ right (if any) to tell of its impact does not outweigh the client’s right to privacy and healing — as it’s never ok to interview clients still living in the midst of their circumstances. This type of story appears a lot in agencies representing domestic violence, homelessness, seniors and underserved populations. Putting the nonprofit’s interests above the client’s, strips the client of their humanity and perpetuates stereotypes on already marginalized groups.

Avoid this story by not rewriting the client’s experience into an untrue narrative. Keep the most intimate details of a client’s identity hidden. Ask yourself, am I sharing the story for the benefit of the client or the nonprofit? The answer is both. If only one side benefits, rethink the approach. A client’s dignity should remain intact before and after the story.

Hero Stories – This is the story nonprofits tell the most often. It goes something like this: A person comes in with a problem. We did all the work. We changed their lives. We are the greatest to ever do it. Give us money. In this story, the client gets lost. The nonprofit sets itself up as the hero and gives all the glory to their program and service. In a story, there can only be one hero. If the nonprofit is occupying that 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 the client is and always has been the hero of their own journey. The nonprofit is aiding them in becoming their best selves. The nonprofit’s services set up a better way. The nonprofit doesn’t save people. They save themselves.

Happily Ever After Stories – 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. This is a fairytale narrative that doesn’t hold up in the real world against 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 falsehood. Be careful of taking responsibility for the livelihood of a client after their services.

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

A nonprofit executive’s job to attract all constituents means stories are non negotiable. Stories are the human language. The trick is to find common ground between sharing the nonprofit’s good works and respecting the person sharing the story. Do this in a true and compelling narrative and you are well on your way to developing the greatest stories ever told.

Written by Shereese Floyd.

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Shereese Floyd
Shereese Floyd is the CEO of The Witness My Life Company-- a communications and messaging firm representing nonprofits, faith communities, and socially-driven private companies & entrepreneurs. Shereese is dedicated to teaching people how to use stories to influence behaviours that move people to action. She is an advocate for social change and believes story is the one thing that truly brings the world together. As a TEDx speaker and coach, she helps aspiring speakers craft signature messages that impact the world. She is a recipient of the Cicero Speechwriting Award for her TEDx - The Secret to Healing the World.

Shereese Floyd is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.