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A Guide To Ethical Storytelling: Honoring Your Clients In Donor Stories and Mailings

Updated: Feb 27

Marketing for a non-profit organization can be tricky. It often feels like a delicate balance between effectively showcasing the positive impact of your work and avoiding exploitation of the vulnerable individuals you serve. I also found, time after time, after highlighting a person, something big would happen in their life that would derail their progress, making it feel like the limelight was just a little bit too much pressure for them. So how do you do it? How do you prove to your donor base that what you’re doing is worthwhile while also respecting the people you’re supporting?

As a former non-profit marketer, I want to not only emphasize the importance of ethical storytelling, but also share some of the best ways I’ve found to honor your clients in stories and marketing materials, while still inviting donors and supporters “in” to the work they are a part of.

Get On The Same Page With A Code Of Ethics:

During my work with nonprofit organizations, there were times where I had a different idea of client privacy than say the Executive Director or Fundraising Director. I remember one specific incident, where a client had decided she didn’t want to share as much information with a crowd during a speech and I approved her updated, more private speech, only to have the Executive Director call her back up to the podium and ask her to share her life story in more depth. I was horrified. The look of discomfort on her face is, unfortunately, captured forever in some photos I took that day, photos that stayed on my hard drive instead of getting published.

Every non-profit organization that includes images and stories of clients should work on a code of conduct and ethics, not just for your communications department, but for your organization as a whole. More than that, you MUST include and center clients in this process from start, middle, to end. Be specific about limits, restrictions, and boundaries around storytelling and photography based on age, ability, and understanding. This code of ethics should also include a sunset policy, which will be discussed later in this blog post.

When the time comes, when outside organizations, like media outlets, grantors, and partner organizations, ask for more information or if your Executive Director or others ask you to bend the rules, stand firm as a communication professional and redirect people to the code of ethics. It will make your job significantly easier if you can point to this code when doing anything for marketing purposes.

Take No For An Answer:

Just because a client has a great story doesn’t mean they want to share any or all of it. If a person agrees to speak, but asks not to share parts of their story--even if it would help your cause--"NO" is a full sentence, no matter the feelings of others in your organization. Clients are not here simply to bring in donor funds and they are not required to put their vulnerabilities on display for donors. 

Once again, having a code of ethics for the organization will significantly help you when the time comes (and it will) that someone wants to push back and ask for more.

Using (Or Not Using) Stock Photos:

Now, what I’m about to say might feel like the opposite of everything I just said, but hear me out.

Marketing studies have been done that show that people are more likely to recognize stock photography and less likely to click on it. Oftentimes, stock photography is generic and overused. At times, stock images are downright ridiculous, showing things that don’t make sense and can keep people from engaging with your content.

Another thing to keep in mind is that stock photography may not look like the demographic you serve, whether that be based on gender, ability, race, or ethnicity. Stock photography is becoming more diverse, but it still is mainly white and cis-centered photos. 

But there are more ways to be creative with your marketing materials while also respecting the people you serve.

Taking Your Own Photos:

Hiring a photographer can be expensive while having a volunteer or amateur photographer might not get you the quality you want. In my opinion, photos are worth the price: they show people who you are and what you do in an appealing light and can be used in multiple ways and in multiple spaces.

When hiring a photographer, keep in mind that they can have suggested poses and set-ups for you that you can approve or veto. It’s strictly to help you if you need inspiration. You can share your code of ethics with them or describe what you’re looking for if you have an idea. If a photographer isn’t willing to shoot the photos you’re asking for, it’s okay to look for someone else. 

As a photographer myself, I often worked on my organization’s photography and I kept certain perspectives in mind when shooting imagery to use for marketing that showed our donors people involved in our organization while also giving them some privacy.

Top Down:

Standing on a chair, desk, or step stool and getting a top-down perspective is often a more engaging photo when people are doing or making something, especially if there’s a lot going on in one plane of focus. In the photo below, if I’d gone for a more straight on image, you’d still have all the info, but with less of the color and engagement.

An overhead shot of a person with black hair wearing a Hawaiian shirt covered in fruit is making juice. On the counter top are containers full of fruit and vegetables.

An overhead photo of two people, one man and one woman, sitting in front of a laptop. The woman is explaining what's on the computer and the man is taking notes.

With this second photo, my goal was to show a more engaging way for someone learning information on a computer. As you can see in the photo, it includes the notes being written and shows more of the face of the teaching partner than the client. 


Hand photos are great, especially for activities such as cooking, drawing, creating, and more. When showing off cooking demos, people learning life skills, and more, using just their hands can be just as effective as using other photos.

A pair of white hands are holding a piece of lettuce while the right hand holds a knife, cutting the lettuce. There is a bowl of salsa in the background.

Use Your Staff And Framing:

Instead of making the sole focus of the image your clients, make it your staff members, volunteers, or partners.

A black man is speaking to a white woman who is Senator Tina Smith in front of others during a sit-down meeting at a non-profit organization.

One thing you’ll also notice is that I use people for framing a photo. You’ll see the back of heads or bodies. Oftentimes, I’ll do this with clients and focus on either staff or a volunteer, especially if the point is that someone important came to visit the organization. In the first photo, you’ll see it’s Minnesota State Senator Tina Smith visiting the organization. While it’s important that she came to speak to the organization’s clients, the focus is on the Senator, making it easier to focus on her, as well as an organizational staff member.

A white woman listens to a young man talking about a mental health problem.

In the second photo, the focus is on a mental health partnership with the organization. The photo focus is on the partner and not on the client, though you can see that the client still remains in the photo with little to no identifying information.

Focus On Your Logo:

Whether it’s on clothing, outreach material, or buildings, let your logo highlight the work that you’re doing. In the below picture, the organization wanted to highlight street outreach on the light rail. Using some creativity, we were able to capture this image during a snowy day in January.

A person wearing a vest with the word "YouthLink" stands in front of the Minneapolis light rail.

Of course, I did also take pictures of people’s faces and shared those on the nonprofit’s website, annual report, and other places, but my personal goal was to keep client faces to a minimum. 

When it comes to the written word, we have some of the same complications and things to keep in mind, and a few that are different.

Power Dynamics Are At Play

Keep in mind that you, as a representative of an organization that is providing services to a client, have a lot of power in asking for the client’s help in marketing matters. Especially if your client base is of a different race or ethnicity than your marketing or fundraising staff. Some clients may feel pressured to say "yes" because your organization is doing or giving them so much. Do your best to have an interviewer that your client may be comfortable with and especially an interviewer that your client may be comfortable saying "no" to.

Stories Can Be Compilations

When watching medical drug commercials, you’ll often see notes at the bottom of the screen in very small writing saying that these people are actors and these stories are compilations. This technique is used to share people’s stories with others while keeping people’s privacy intact.

When it comes to your stories, it is absolutely allowable for you to do the same thing. Using story compilations for your marketing materials can help you not only with privacy, but also with the longevity of the story’s use. The more private the story, the less likely that a person will ask for it to be removed after a period of time. 

No Identifying Information And Consent

This next item ties into the first: you MUST change identifying information, especially when it comes to children, schools, and where a client lives. Even if the client says it’s okay to publish this information (I have had clients encourage me to), this is a safety concern. It’s important to remember that the people you work with are vulnerable and you want to keep their safety as your top concern. No matter what your client is willing to share, you must obtain a full understanding and consent.

Where has your client agreed to have their story told? If you only mention the printed newsletter during consent, but then later post the story online, have you gained full consent? If you’ve asked permission for the person to speak at your gala, but then record it and post it online, do you have permission to do so? It’s incredibly important to be clear about what and where you are posting items online.

Your Client Is In Control

We started this blog post discussing the necessity of letting your client be in control of their narrative and the written word is no different. Your client needs to control how much information is published, even if they want to leave out the parts of the story that you want them to include. In the grand scheme of things, we need to look at the client's participation as a favor to the organization and not a right or a demand. This also means that, if the client decides they no longer want their story up, it’s important to respect their decision and take it down.

Sunsetting Your Stories And Photos

Previously, we spoke about a code of ethics for marketing and including a sunset policy. 

Maybe you love that photo from 10 years ago and think that it shows the embodiment of your organization, but it’s time to let it go. Especially when working with younger clients, think ages 0 to 18, we need to ask ourselves if they’d still want to be a representative of our organization. Do they now have jobs and families of their own that may not know about the struggles they went through? I highly recommend that you use photos for 2 to 3 years before moving them out of rotation. 

When it comes to stories, you may be able to keep them around for 3 to 4 years if they have no identifying information, including photos and descriptions. 

No matter how long you decide to use these photos or stories, I always, always, ALWAYS say that if the person contacts you and asks that their photo or story be removed, you should do so immediately and without hesitation. 


Honoring your clients in donor stories and marketing can be easy when everyone finds themselves on the same page. In fact, sometimes the restrictions placed on us for client privacy can make you a more creative marketing person. So don’t feel anxious - feel free to become your most creative self!

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