By far the most common question I’m asked when I’m speaking about storytelling is along the lines of, “We’re a women’s shelter. How do we tell our stories if we have to maintain our client’s privacy?” Whether you work with a women’s shelter, a hospital foundation, a charity focused on children, or one addressing a particular disease or ailment, you’ve no doubt faced this dilemma.

This month, my tip is to think outside the box when it comes to storytelling.

There are two ways you can address issues of privacy and confidentiality. First, you can change enough details of the story that the subject becomes unidentifiable.

Let’s use a specific example. Let’s imagine that you’re the Director of Development for ABCD Charity, an agency that focuses on addictions. You have an incredibly powerful story, but it involves a young boy living with a drug-addicted single mother in Ottawa. You clearly can’t name the child, nor can you name the child’s mother. And, if you describe the neighborhood too closely, your readers may be able to identify the family.

What you shouldn’t do is walk away from the story (although there are exceptions, which I’ll address later on in this article). Instead, change enough detail that the family becomes unidentifiable. So, your young boy might become a young girl living with an alcoholic single father in Vancouver.

The critical thing in storytelling is to build an emotional connection with the reader, and you can do that just as well even if you change a few details. What’s important is to make sure that your story, despite its changed details, still includes five critical elements:

  • A protagonist (or hero): Whether this is a young girl or boy, in Ottawa or Vancouver, you still have a strong hero.
  • A problem: In either scenario, there isn’t enough food on the table and homework isn’t getting done.
  • An antagonist (or obstacle): The child is behind at school and not reaching their full potential.
  • Awareness (or an ‘aha’ moment): But wait, there’s hope! ABCD Charity helps people recover from addiction, while bringing resources to their families so that children like your hero can stay in school.
  • Transformation (or resolution): Because of the generous donations that make ABCD Charity’s work possible, our hero has graduated from law school at the top of his/her class.

Want to read just such a story (one complete with changed details)? Check out this one from the Education Foundation of Ottawa.

But let’s be honest: sometimes you just can’t tell the stories of the people you help (perhaps there’s a policy against it, or you simply can’t get approval). This brings me to the second way that you can address issues of privacy and confidentiality: by telling your organization’s story from a different angle.

Let’s use ABCD Charity as an example again. We can’t tell a client’s story. Well, no problem. What about telling one of these just as powerful stories instead?

I leave you with this: Your organization is richer in stories than you may realize. Think differently and jump out of your storytelling box. Your fundraising will be better for it.

If you’re interested in this topic, and others related to storytelling, be sure to check out the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference taking place in Seattle in November. I’ll be speaking, and so will a host of others.

This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works.