Ethical Storytelling

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
Many years ago I led programs for teens at a large summer camp. At the end of one three week program I wrote a report to my supervisors that included the story of one of our teenage campers, I’ll call him Gavin. The story was meant to illustrate the kind of impact the program was having on young people and it shared some aspects of Gavin’s story that he had shared with me in our personal conversations. In that report, as in this post, I changed the camper’s name to respect his privacy.

I didn’t know the story was going to be used in a large scale mailing.

It wasn’t long before Gavin contacted me to ask why I felt it was okay for me to share things about his life with hundreds of strangers, including his family who saw through the name change and learned a couple things Gavin wasn’t ready to discuss with them.

He felt betrayed, and he was right.

I apologized profusely.

I really was upset that what I understood to be an internal report was published widely without my awareness or Gavin’s consent. Eventually he said it wasn’t that big a deal but I have never forgotten the feeling of having violated the trust of someone I cared about. (I believe the organization learned from that situation as well and is much more diligent about how stories are shared).

Those feelings came rushing back this week when I read The Ethical Storytelling Pledge

It seems like a dramatic shift is happening in the charitable sector in how we tell stories. No too many years ago I remember hearing advice about finding the most heartrending images to use in fundraising efforts because they bring in the most money. That may still be true, but those increased donations come at a cost to the dignity and privacy of people who may never have the opportunity Gavin had to call me out on breaking his trust.

I can acknowledge the reality of the tension. Raising more funds should lead to greater impact, and isn’t that the point? Ultimately it’s a matter of our values. If we believe in the humanity, agency, and autonomy of those we desire to help it is worth the cost of lower donations to treat them properly.

I signed the pledge. I hope you will too.

Subscribe to the monthly Catalyst Content Newsletter