Ethical Storytelling: Practical Tips To Avoid Donor Manipulation

5 min read
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Is storytelling manipulative, especially when it stirs emotions for donations? Heck, if storytelling is manipulative, we need to shut down BairStories like yesterday because we specialize in emotive storytelling.

But hold on a second, is storytelling really that bad?

Storytelling can be both manipulative and empathetic. It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s neither inherently good nor bad; it’s all about how you use it. So why do some people think it’s manipulative? This article will discuss the difference between manipulation and persuasion in your nonprofit storytelling with examples.

Why People View Storytelling as Manipulation

Ken Burns, the famed documentary filmmaker, suggests good and bad manipulation. What does that mean?

To manipulate means to:

  • Control for your benefit, often unfairly. (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • Skillfully manage or operate something. (Webster’s Dictionary)
  • Influence in a subtle and possibly underhand way. (Oxford Dictionary)

Sidenote: Oxford reported in 1872 the use of manipulate, which means " to manage, control, or influence in a subtle, devious, or underhand manner."

The Core Elements of Manipulation are:

  • Done with skill
  • Done with the intent of personal gain at the expense of others

Done with skill is about how you do things - from running machines to swaying opinions. But doing it for self-gain, especially at the cost of others? That’s where it crosses the line.

Is Storytelling Manipulation or Persuasion?

The answer lies in the nuance of the storyteller’s intention. Storytelling can guide, control, or sway people. But how it’s done - that’s key. Ethical storytelling ensures narratives are used responsibly, focusing on truth and empathy rather than manipulation.

Another word is required to avoid the negative baggage of manipulation. I suggest the verb persuade. It has less negative baggage and better explains the process of using storytelling for marketing purposes or fundraising.

To Persuade Means To:

  • Reason with someone to do something. (Webster’s Dictionary)
  • Encourage action in a specific direction. (Oxford Dictionary)
  • Convince by giving good reasons. (Cambridge Dictionary)

The Core Elements of Persuasion Are:

  • Change behavior, beliefs, or decisions by altering minds, encouraging actions, or shaping beliefs.
  • Convince through open, rational arguments, avoiding deceptive tactics.
  • Persuade respectfully, allowing the person to decide based on presented information or arguments.

If you’re aiming to influence through reasoning, that’s persuasion. It’s about respecting the decision-making process. But influencing for personal gain, using deceptive tactics? That’s manipulation as we know it.

Quick Note About Fundraising

I like how Fundraising Coach Jon Dize put it: "Fundraising isn’t about forcing hands; it’s about aligning hearts with fitting programs.”

This philosophy aligns with the Biblical principle in 2 Corinthians 9:7 about giving cheerfully, not under pressure or compulsion.

Our storytelling examples at BairStories knock on the doors of hearts. We present stories that allow audiences to care and act as they feel inspired.

The Ethical Use of Storytelling

Canva, Ethical Storytelling for Nonprofits

Ethical storytelling is vital in nonprofit communications. During a MemoryFox-hosted webinar, the speakers emphasized that it's about avoiding harm and uplifting and empowering those whose stories are being told.

Storytelling can shift from a transactional to a relational approach, focusing on aspirations and contributions rather than deficits. It's hard to truly relate to others when you’re manipulating them.

Ethical storytelling is all about clear, honest, empathic communication.

Storytelling fosters understanding and connection - far from manipulation. This connection is key to humans and, by extension, to your nonprofit.

Without this connection, why would anyone care?

Why would donors contribute?

Storytelling offers the tools for vulnerability and deep relationships.

Truthfulness Example

In our storytelling work, we face ethical decisions daily, such as deciding what to include or exclude from a story.

A BairStories project for Klarhet

For instance, in our project Uncharted Dreams for Klarhet, we chose to omit a part of their story that wasn't critical and caused unnecessary prolongation. We did so without harm while uplifting their origin story through focus and intention.

Checklist for Avoiding Manipulation In Your Storytelling

  • Are you transparent, dodging misinformation or misrepresentation?
  • Are you respecting the donor’s autonomy to give freely?
  • Are you focusing on empowerment instead of guilt?
  • Are you open to different ways of support or fixed on your preferred method?

If you’ve answered yes to all of these, you’re on the path of persuasion. These questions form a solid base for ethical, effective fundraising rooted in respect, honesty, and empowerment.

Additional Resources & Tips for Ethical Storytelling:


So there you have it. Storytelling isn’t inherently manipulative or benevolent; it’s a tool that reflects the storyteller’s intent. Ethical storytelling is about persuasion when fundraising or calling people to action. We’re talking about connecting with hearts, engaging minds through reasoning and respect, and not exploiting emotions for gain.

Do you struggle to connect on a human level with your audience? 

Download our emotive storytelling guide and discover practical steps from manipulation to meaningful persuasion. Empower your message today!

Tagged: Ethics · Fundraising · Storytelling

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We're a storyfirst film and video production company, based in Minnesota, specializing in emotive stories that elevate empathy, community, and funding. 

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