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Ethical Storytelling | Communication Without Exploitation

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A person taking a picture of a crowd with their smartphone.

One of the most powerful tools in the social-impact world is storytelling. Organizations tell stories to connect with people, move them to action, or raise money—and sometimes a combination of all three.

On an individual level, your personal story may have led you to the work you do. When you share your story with others, it can inspire them to support you or your cause with their time or money.

Stories are powerful because they tap into our emotions and shared values. It’s one thing to read about a social issue on paper; it’s another to learn about an actual person’s experience with that issue and putting a face or a voice to the story.

And yet it's important to remember that with the power of storytelling, comes a great responsibility. There’s a fine line between telling a person’s story and using their story, and between empowering someone’s voice through storytelling and exploiting them.

Increasingly, social-impact professionals are paying attention to that fine line by exploring the concept of ethical storytelling. 

What is ethical storytelling?

Ethical Storytelling is a movement by and for social-impact professionals. It provides a platform to wrestle with the ethical questions involved in storytelling and provide resources and support for answering those questions.

An ethical storytelling approach raises questions like: 

  • Do we have the person’s consent to tell their story, for this purpose and in this medium?
  • Whose needs and desires are at the center of how the story is presented, the person whose story it is or the audience for the story?
  • Who is the protagonist of the story, the person or our organization? Who is empowered, and who is disempowered?
  • Are we telling the story in a way that reinforces harmful stereotypes or stigmas about a social issue or the people who are affected by it?
  • What will happen to the person after we tell their story in this way? Could it cause them harm? Are we going to continue to help them and be in relationship with them, or are we leaving as soon as we “get what we need?”

Rachel Goble, CEO of The Freedom Story and a co-curator of the Ethical Storytelling website, tells Idealist Careers that she started out exploring these questions informally with friends and contacts. Then they decided to create the website to broaden the conversation and gather resources in one place, with the eventual goal of creating standards and best practices for ethical storytelling.

Why ethical storytelling matters

“Story has the opportunity to show someone how strong they can be and to highlight our strengths and dignity and hope, potentially amidst dark, trying, and sometimes overwhelming injustice,” Goble says. An ethical storytelling approach, she adds, taps into those positive attributes and connects us all as humans.

The alternative is, at its worst, an overly simplistic or sensationalized story: one that amps up the dark and trying circumstances to the point that the human at the center of the story is lost or further marginalized. This outcome is contrary to the stated missions of most social-impact organizations, which means that ethical storytelling is actually core to our work.

“I feel very motivated to let organizations know that it’s okay and it’s powerful to move away from pity-based marketing and toward a more human-centered approach to storytelling,” Goble says.

How to embrace ethical storytelling in your work

A good first step is to take the Ethical Storytelling pledge. The pledge lists several commitments to help you live by the principles of ethical storytelling.

After signing the pledge, download a copy so you can post it somewhere noticeable and use it as a daily guide—something Goble recommends and does herself. Signing the pledge also subscribes you to the Ethical Storytelling email list, which shares webinars and other resources.

If your organization wants to embrace ethical storytelling, Goble suggests that you start by drafting a child protection policy. Even if your organization doesn’t often work with children, many of the questions you would confront in drafting this policy—such as, "What situation are we putting someone in and what counts as informed consent?"—are relevant to working with adults too.

Another place to start is to think about the consent process for any online content your organization produces. Goble suggests going beyond the simple question of whether you are gathering consent forms and considering questions like:

  • Is there a sunset policy where a person’s consent expires after a certain amount of time? 
  • Does the process of obtaining consent include an explanation of how and where the person’s story will be told online?

“It’s very easy for us to just get into the habit of, ‘We have another email, we have to do an Instagram post four times a week, we just need content,’ and to lose the human-ness,” Goble says. “What we have forgotten is that human connection also incites empathy and the desire to support one another.”


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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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