When we embark upon what’s known in the nonprofit world as “donation season,” chances are that your organization thinks about putting together a fundraising video or other media that demonstrates the impact of your work.

When I became the in-house Media & Communications Manager at my last nonprofit, I produced those fundraising videos, program photos, and other visual media to promote the organization’s mission.

My experience as a young person who participated in the organization’s programming helped me frame my work documenting other young people’s experiences. However, I wasn’t given any guidance on how to do this work ethically, and I found myself questioning whether I was collecting media in a way that honored the participants, rather than tokenized them for marketing and fundraising.

These toxic patterns of tokenism and saviorism that we see replicated time and time again dehumanize and disempower the people we are trying to uplift in our work.

Here are some best practices based on my experiences over six years of storytelling for nonprofits and being a documentary filmmaker.

    • Involve the right people in the planning stage. The work of storytelling should never be entirely led by an outside party or by the development team alone. Make sure you include the people closest to the groundwork in the planning process (program managers, teaching artists, partners, etc.), because they will have the closest relationships with potential storytellers.
    • Treat stories as a collaboration; you are never telling someone’s story for them. Once you identify your storytellers, include them in every aspect of the process from beginning to end. Begin your relationship building by scheduling a time to meet them and conduct a pre-interview if possible.
    • Clearly outline how the media will be used. Just because you collect a blanket media release doesn’t mean it’s ethical to use the story in ways outside of what the storyteller agrees to. This is where your legal rights coincide with your ethical obligations.
    • Always pay for the rights to share a story. If you can’t afford to compensate people for sharing their stories, then you should not ask them. Storytelling requires time and emotional labor. Consider that some people may be losing money or time spent elsewhere by choosing to spend it with you.
    • Frame everything through an accessible, people-centered lens. Respect your storyteller’s needs. When dealing with emotionally heavy content, it’s important to let storytellers know in advance (and remind them in the moment) that they do not have to share beyond their comfort and can take a break at any point.
    • Shift your language. Language is important. Calling someone a “storyteller” (which I’ve been using throughout this article), hero (like on the Netflix show Queer Eye), or even participant (which implies their collaborative action in participating) versus a “subject” is a way to honor their contribution rather than just being part of the product.
    • Check in. This is important. Your relationship with storytellers does not end when your fundraiser is over.
    • Reflect and adapt. The process won’t be perfect every time, and there is no set formula that works for everyone.

Read the full article about nonprofit storytelling by Nahida Nisa at Blue Avocado.