5 Tips for Sharing Stories When You Work with Vulnerable Populations - Charity Savant

5 Tips for Sharing Stories When You Work with Vulnerable Populations

Every fundraiser, good or bad, knows the value of a good story. We chase beneficiary testimonials, looking for that diamond in the rough whose story could help secure huge gifts.

But when you’re working with vulnerable populations, beneficiary stories can be hard to come by.

“Vulnerable populations” is a phrase used to group together individuals who experience economic or social marginalization, or who are dealing with some form of trauma. This can include racialized individuals, survivors of abuse, people with disabilities, the elderly, and more. If you’re working for an organization that serves these groups, you may have found yourself navigating some murky waters around gathering stories.

It’s very different when raising awareness or funds for charities that serve abuse survivors, versus a breast cancer research, for example. A breast cancer survivor these days is more likely to be comfortable sharing her story publicly, as talking about the disease is no longer considered taboo. Survivors of abuse however, are often dealing with stigma and blame, in addition to issues of personal safety and trauma. These will have a huge impact on a decision to share their stories.

Here are some tips you can use to support vulnerable individuals when they decide to share their stories.

1. Recognize the power dynamic

There is an inherent power dynamic in play when a charity asks one it’s beneficiaries to participate in storytelling. As a charity employees, we hold power over our clients by providing service that they need or want. Clients need to be absolutely ready and willing to tell their stories; they should not need to be convinced. Any persuading can put the client in an uncomfortable situation if they want to say no – feelings of guilt, ungratefulness, indebtedness. The process of storytelling should be an empowering one for your client, and if it isn’t, something is wrong.

2. Make sure they’re ready.

There’s a difference between readiness and willingness to tell one’s story. Even if a client is willing, it’s your job to make sure they’re ready. This means:

  • Asking whether they are physically and emotionally safe
  • Ensuring that they will not be triggered while recounting details of their lives
  • Ensuring they have access to services or a support network if they are triggered or need follow up support

It’s important to check in about all of the above on an ongoing basis: when you ask them to participate, during participation, and afterward.

3. Explain the process and get explicit consent

Your beneficiaries really need to understand what they’re signing up for. Walk them through the process. If you’re using their story in marketing materials, will they be interviewed or expected to write their own story? If they’re speaking in public, how many people will be there, and will you help them with their speech? If you need them to speak to the media, what can they expect? And so on.

You should get written, signed consent to use your beneficiaries’ stories. This means creating a consent form that authorizes you to use to use their story in print, online, in video, or any other medium you use. Beneficiaries should be able to opt out of whatever medium they are uncomfortable with, and should also have the opportunity to tell you whether they would like an alias used, or if certain details of their stories cannot be share publicly.

4. Walk your beneficiary through draft materials

This is an especially important step if your beneficiary is not telling their own story. For example, if you’re making a video about them, they need to approve how the video was edited. If possible, take time to sit with them while they review the material, and answer any questions they might have. Some beneficiaries may be reluctant to “criticize” what you’ve produced, so ask leading questions in order to get their honest feedback.

5. Always allow them to withdraw consent

Make sure your beneficiaries know that they can withdraw their consent at any stage, even years after you used their story. This might complicate things on your end (you can’t ask a donor to un-read a newsletter article!) but the beneficiary’s story is their property only, and they have the right to decide who hears it.

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