Storytelling and transparency

November 6, 2009

transparentPR people know that it’s a story that moves and motivates people whether you use it to sell a new product or new a charity. I’ve written about the power of the story in this blog before. However, there is a difference between telling a story and stretching the truth.

I just spent the last 20 minutes reading a couple of posts written by David Roodman about the micro financing organization, Kiva (which I’ve also written about). Fascinating stuff. The first post is an exposé of sorts about how Kiva operates, how loans are distributed and how it’s the power of story telling and connecting one-on-one with borrowers that makes the organization so successful. The “exposé” is partly about the fact that the money from lenders is not actually going to the specific borrowers they selected. It certainly is a bit misleading. Roodman’s second post is also interesting as it follows up on the fallout that occurred after his first post.

The whole discussion got me thinking about story telling in general. There is a huge push in the nonprofit sector to tell the stories of the people that benefit from the organization. I face this pressure all the time. The public has become accustomed to seeing people reveal the intimate details of their lives for all to see on reality TV and on social networking sites. Knowing the “gritty” details has become an expectation.

The other  reality is a powerful story from a victim of sexual abuse, poverty, domestic violence, gang involvement, attempted suicide, mental illness etc. garners more donors then  published research on what has been shown to be effective at addressing these issues or than the statistics about how often the issue is affecting people’s lives. The story always wins.

This pressure can lead to stretching the truth of a victim’s story so that it’s especially compelling or perhaps to leaving out details that don’t fit the “deserving victim” role. For example, revealing that a domestic violence victim has also been charged with assault on her partner is a dynamic too controversial and difficult to explain, so perhaps that gets left out of the profile included in the annual appeal letter.

But if your organization is truly using donors’ money effectively, does the level of truth in the story matter? I think it does, even if someone such as David Roodman doesn’t come along to dig up what’s really going on. When it does get found out, regardless of whether the organization is doing much good or not, the level of donor trust plummets.

What are your thoughts? Where do you draw the line on truth in storytelling?

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