A Note About This Guide From the Author

My life is split between my communications work with nonprofit organizations and my work as a documentary playwright, interviewing people and turning their verbatim words into audio and stage dramas. I love telling true stories about real people and important topics.

Over the years, these jobs have raised difficult questions about who has the right to tell any given story, and about how best to use story as a tool to breed empathy. They have also led to much research and soul searching about whether or not the same stories that help achieve short-term priorities, including raising money for critical programs, can also advance long-term goals, such as dismantling a range of negative stereotypes that contribute to unjust policies.

There is growing support inside the social sector for the idea that telling personal, deeply human stories is an essential part of creating change. Over the last two decades, countless resources have focused on helping organizations tell those stories more effectively. At the same time, storytelling can be resisted as a practice by staff and advocates who often view it as exploiting and potentially victimizing to already marginalized communities.

To me, there is nothing inherently harmful about organizations telling stories that examine the human effects of unequal and unjust circumstances and policies, and that share what organizations are doing to help; in fact, I think it’s essential that they do this. But I believe the problems start when stories paint people as nothing more than their problems, ignoring their humanity and reinforcing a false sense of “us” and “them.” Stories become harmful when they are framed solely from an organization’s perspective, raising its voice over the top of someone who has experienced inequality and injustice, and whose perspective most needs to be heard and considered. And story is silencing when organizations don’t ask someone if they want to tell their story or find other ways to invite their perspective into the organization’s narratives about its work and the issues that work addresses. In other words, storytelling can become a tool for harm when people aren’t part of shaping their own personal and community narratives or the broader frame of the issue at hand.

Just as the social sector’s services and advocacy need to be deeply informed by their community members’ needs and goals, the same approach should underscore the storytelling that organizations engage in. People most affected by an issue need to play a significant role in framing and telling their stories. In pursuit of social change, we sometimes focus on storytelling merely as a tool for public education and persuasion, forgetting it is an equally important act of asking, listening, learning, and informing the argument. Some organizations already do this incredibly well, particularly advocacy groups that are led and largely staffed by members of a community whom are directly affected by that issue. Many of us, myself included, can do so much better.

This guide is intended as a tool for nonprofit organizations. After examining the roles that sympathy and empathy play in social change storytelling, it suggests some practices nonprofit organizations can use to partner with clients and communities to tell their own stories. These strategies are not meant to be definitive or comprehensive; there are certainly limitations to my perspective. For years, I’ve been looking for resources to help me do this work better, and it’s the conversation I most want to have with people in communities and people who work in this field. My hope is merely that this guide sparks deeper conversations inside organizations and with each other about how we are telling stories for social good. I’m eager to hear from you about how you are approaching this work.

— Kate Marple