Who Tells the Story?

A different kind of social change storytelling.

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Stories are critical to social change. They show us the human stakes of policy decisions. They offer windows into experiences unlike our own. They make us stop and think, because they first make us feel.

For organizations that use storytelling to help change the world, the conversation can’t begin and end with how to effectively tell stories; we need to talk about how those stories are framed and how people and communities are represented in those stories.

Organizations often tell stories without meaningful input from the people those stories are about or who are most affected by the policy or issue in question. This must change.

Who Tells the Story? is a guide to help nonprofit organizations engage in empathetic, social change storytelling where clients and communities are partners in shaping narratives. It shares research and concrete strategies for engaging clients in storytelling efforts, and includes sample tools to help foster informed conversations about consenting to share one’s story. The guide is a jumping off place for organizations to examine their current storytelling practices, and, hopefully, it is the start of a larger conversation within the social sector about how we can all do this work better.


Examining the research

Sympathy leads to charity. Empathy leads to change.


Stories that reduce people to their problems, that depict sad, hopeless faces, and that paint organizations as heroic are common in the social sector, and they can be effective in raising money; research shows a correlation between sympathy and charitable giving.

But those same stories can also more deeply embed stereotypes that make solving systemic problems more difficult. Changing policies, particularly to be more just and more equitable, requires that people instead feel empathy—that they understand more about people, not just their problems, and that they recognize themselves and their loved ones’ experiences in others. This requires a different kind of social change storytelling, one where clients and communities are in the driver’s seat. Who Tells the Story? looks at research that illuminates why.



Strategies for Partnered, Empathetic Storytelling


Partnering with clients and communities means changing the culture of storytelling inside organizations. Who Tells the Story? explores what that looks like at four points in the storytelling process:

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Setting the Stage for Partnership

Involve clients and staff in the storytelling process from the beginning

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Establishing Goals & Boundaries

Engage in an empowering, nuanced conversation about intent and consent

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Gathering the Story

Foster authentic sharing and invite perspective on the story and how to frame it

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Telling the Story

Focus on empathetic, human narratives that center on the people they’re really about