Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Whose Story is it Anyway?

I am one who has always believed in the value of good story telling in fundraising. Nothing earth shattering in that statement. Most anybody who has been successful in nonprofit fundraising - whether writing grant proposals, doing direct mail, or creating event programs - will tell you the same thing.

Even with foundations (and others) seemingly more focused than ever on outcomes and measurements, when I teach proposal writing I always caution my students from getting so caught up in the numbers that they forget the human element. Data and statistics, I tell them, may help make the case, but it's putting a face and a story to that data that gets signatures on checks.

With that in mind, I also believe that nonprofits who want to be effective at fundraising should always be on the look-out for good stories from the people they serve, encouraging them to (if possible) write out their experience of how the organization helped in their own words. These can be used in proposals, letters, speeches, etc.

For years this was considered good advice, and was appreciated by my students and clients alike. Until earlier this year.

The program staff of an organization I was working with all very strongly felt that using these real stories - even with names and identifying details changed - was a violation of their client's trust and privacy, ethically questionable, and akin to an act of violence.

The clients had been through rough times and did not have much. What they did have was their personal story, and to take that from them was beyond exploitation. Unless the client voluntarily and without prompting offered, "I want you to use my story to market the organization," there would be no compromise on this position.

I completely understood where the program staff was coming from on this, and the importance of being respectful of telling somebody else's story. But I also know the reality of trying to raise funds for even the best of causes without the ability to talk about the organization's success in terms of the success of the individuals it serves.

I have no simple answers with this blog post, other than to inform and ask permission before using a client story in your organizational material. But what do you think?

Are the stories of your client's success so important that it justifies exploiting them to raise money? And while the circumstances that brought a client to your nonprofit may be their private affair, don't you have some right to talk about how you helped them out of those circumstances? Please comment below - I'd love to know how you handle this delicate issue.