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.


  1. I understand privacy issues and understand nonprofit fundraising. The client comes first. They may have reasons to share or not to share their personal experiences. I believe that the most important consideration is to empower them to have choices. To deny or obstruct, their right to share their stories, to make the decision for them, is not helping them take control of their lives. They must be given the option. What a powerful gift for changing their lives and the lives of others! If this also raises funds so others will have the opportunity they have had, they have become superheroes.

  2. I think the organization to which you made reference was creating a problem where none existed. To say that it could not approach one or more of its clients to seek permission to use his story for fear that the client would be manipulated or that his privacy would be violated is a straw man. What it is really responding to is not a potential misuse of a clent's information by some unknown third party but rather a misuse by itself. In essence, it is saying that it does not trust its own management, its own staff, or both.

    What would be appropriate would be to discuss how the organization manages itself, how it safeguards client information, and how it addresses confidentiality issues in a real world.

    Its objection to the use of a client's story reminds me of the biblical account of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. While the serpent lured Eve to taste the forbidden fruit, Eve's response was that she could not even touch it lest she die. That was not the case, but it reflected her own anxiety over being confronted with temptation. Her solution was not to touch the fruit lest she eat it.

    I have found that the management of non-profit organizations more than that of for-profit organizations seem to want erect artificial barriers to fend off criticism. This may be because of the dependence of non-profits on the largesse of others and the fear of alienating potential contributors by the mere appearance of impropriety, but I think it borders on obsession.

    Having been on the board of several non-profit organizations, I have seen how they dig themselves into holes with no good reason to do so just for the sake of appearances. My suggestion to them has always been to adopt realistic policies that reflect the exigencies of life as it is, not as it could be in a perfect world. This has led to improved financial support, better community relations, and better opportunities to fulfill their stated missions.

    1. Thanks for the great comment. You hit the nail on the head with recognizing program staff's lack of trust in management.