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April 10, 2019

5 Tips for Stories That Move Donors When Confidentiality Is a Must


Into yoga? You’d make a good fundraiser. By that I mean you’ve got to be nimble, shifting quickly and proactively based on changing trends, donor behavior, geopolitics, tax laws, emerging channels … and on and on.

But there is a steady standby in fundraising. It’s your good friend, storytelling.

Powerful stories transcend time and generations, even as the way we share them might change. I can still remember taking my kids to a library when they were younger. As we stood among the stacks and stacks of books, my youngest looked at me, eyes filled with wonder, and asked, “What is this place?” Ah yes. Printed books. Dog-eared pages. The snap of spines when you crack open hardcovers. Rare sights and sounds, indeed.

But even as the channels of story delivery change, the steady stalwarts of good storytelling continue to march forth. Like conflict. And drama. And action. And details. And emotion. And compelling imagery. Stories bring your mission to life and motivate giving. They zero right in on your donor’s heart — which is key to her engagement.


The purpose of stories is easy to grasp, but the craft of storytelling is hard.

And it can seem all the more challenging when confidentiality is required. This is often the case if your organization addresses domestic or sexual abuse, addiction, medical illnesses, or any number of other sensitive circumstances.


But here’s some good news: We can still tell powerful fundraising stories and retain confidentiality. Use these five tips to navigate those restricted waters:

  1. Changing Names and Photos to Protect Privacy. Yes, you can change the name of the person you’re interviewing and use a stock image if you need to. But make sure you are transparent with the person you’re interviewing. Let them know how you plan to protect their confidentiality and that you’re placing their comfort level before your interest in using their story. When you do that, you’ll often find it nurtures trust in the process, and you’ll get a better story that way, too. But don’t forget about …
  2. Using Disclaimers. If you do change a name, photo, or event, make sure you note that clearly within your story. It can be a footnote like this: Names and photos have been changed to protect privacy. Or it can be within the story itself if, for example, you’re writing a fundraising letter. Like this: Let me tell you about a mom we helped. I’ll call her Lisa. Most of your supporters won’t care that a real name wasn’t used, because …
  3. Sharing Details Will Still Motivate. Here’s where you need to be careful. If your story subject lives in a small town, don’t reveal that she went to James Madison High School in 1981. Just say she went to high school in a small town. Details matter, because they can reveal identity. Tread carefully, but not at the risk of excising the details that seed emotion. For example, let’s say your story is about a child fighting cancer, but the parents don’t want to share names or photos. You can still talk about the parents’ panic at hearing the word “cancer.” You can share details of the time the mom cried when she stroked her child’s hair and a clump of it fell out from chemotherapy. But make sure you also share the inspiring moments that make donors cheer. For example, when that same child finished treatment and rediscovered how much she loved spaghetti, video games, and painting her toenails glittery pink. Summoning that emotion is important, which is why …
  4. Choosing the Right Imagery Is Critical. We process visuals something like 60,000 times faster than reading words. Consider photos that don’t reveal someone’s face. If your subject is open to it, try a photo of his or her face turned to the side, as a profile shot. If you need to use stock photography, just make sure you note that. Be careful about captions not making a claim that the stock photo is the actual person. And think creatively. I once interviewed a domestic violence victim who was brave enough to share her story but didn’t want her photo used, for obvious reasons. I took a photo of her from behind, staring out of the window. You could only see the faintest hint of the side of her face. We also used photos of her hands clasped on her lap to undergird the story’s tones of resilience and strength. Because people have to be strong to share their stories, we need to respect and honor that. Which is why, after all is said and done, don’t forget that …
  5. Getting a Signed Consent Form Is Standard Practice. In addition to the usual consent/release form language, I will often note on the form the agreement between us and what they are allowing me to share (first name only, for example; or that I will change all names and photos). Then, make sure you get that consent form signed. Scan it and store it digitally somewhere, too.

Telling good stories is good fundraising. So don’t let confidentiality be a barrier. There are many more difficult things in the world … like finding someone reading a printed book.

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