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On nonprofit storytelling and the truthiness of fundraising mailers

Lansie Sylvia. June 7, 2017 Category: ColumnFeaturedFundingLong

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


I get tons of letters in the mail telling the “story” of a little boy in the hospital, or a little girl who needs water, or a little dog that is looking for a forever home, but how do I know that any of these stories are true?

Nonprofits are bound by legal requirements as well as codes of ethics, just like straight-forward businesses and “conscious capitalist” enterprises are. And just like businesses, unscrupulous ones can find ways to exploit requirements and codes in order to get more money. But generally, nonprofits are required to be truthful in communications.

Different states have different definitions of what this truthfulness entails, especially when it comes to fundraising.

Firstly, it sounds like you have to get yourself off a few mailing lists so that you’re not reviewing donation requests that you’re already disinterested in. Receiving unwanted mail will turn that disinterest into downright dislike, and that’s not good for anyone.

Secondly, you can always, always, always call or email a nonprofit and ask questions. You may not get an immediate answer — small nonprofits are often understaffed, and large nonprofits can be bureaucratic juggernauts — but I’ve personally never reached out to a nonprofit with a specific question and been met by silence (readers, feel free to contradict me in the comments.)

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You can ask about a specific mailing you received with a specific story, or you can ask about how the nonprofit generally collects and then utilizes the stories of their constituents, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders.

Nonprofits generally use stories in one of four ways, varying from very direct all the way to composite narratives.

1. The subject of the story tells the complete story.

In my humble opinion, this is the best option. Nonprofits that empower their constituents to tell their own stories create two positive outcomes: They bring donors closer to the organization by connecting them directly to a powerful story of change, and they help the constituent self-advocate by giving a platform to speak their truth.

These stories are always told in the first person. It can be a slippery slope between empowerment and exploitation though. Families USA has a wonderful series of resources on storybanking and asking people to share their stories publicly that I highly recommend.

2. Someone other than the subject of the story tells the complete story.

This is when an executive or development director, or similar, tells the story of a constituent. You can tell because the story will be in the third person. The best nonprofits get these stories directly from the source and have gotten signed permission from the subject to use the story in marketing and fundraising efforts.

3. To preserve privacy, someone other than the subject tells the story and changes key names, identifying details, and locations.

A nonprofit’s primary responsibility is to its constituents and beneficiaries. Often, organizations that serve vulnerable populations will change identifying characteristics of a story’s subject in order to protect them. The story is true, but the person’s name might be Sally, not Susan, and she might be from Columbus, not Cleveland. It’s still one story that really happened to one person, but nonprofits have a duty to report that details have been changed.

4. To preserve privacy, a composite subject and story are constructed.

Ahhhh … now this starts to get to the root of your question. What is truth? Is it a set series of facts that lead from point A to point B? Does a specific story have to happen to one specific person to be true?

Or can a collection of stories, all told through the narrative device of a “subject” instead convey a real truth about a larger group of people all experiencing similar things?

Composite stories take one or more real-life subjects and mix the experiences together to create one story that is emblematic of the whole. This can be a good choice if a nonprofit’s served population is too vulnerable, young, or otherwise incapable of giving consent for use of the story.

It’s also a good choice for telling stories online or by email, where those stories can live on forever, regardless of whether the subject’s life circumstances may change. I’ve personally told some stories on the internet that I wish I hadn’t now that I’m a big, fancy, Generocity columnist. (Ugh, that one about my cat. Not my best.)

Nonprofits often use openers like, “Imagine if you were …” or “What if there were …” to denote the use of a composite story. In this way, the nonprofit can accurately depict a story while still ethically disclosing that this isn’t a real person being talked about. Is a composite story true? I would argue that it is because it demonstrates the true experiences of a number of constituents being served.

Ultimately, the best way for you to determine the “truthiness” of a nonprofit’s impact is to volunteer there and talk to staff and other volunteers directly. Heck, you already have the nonprofit on the phone, right? After you ask them about storytelling, why not ask them when their next service day is happening?


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