How often have you come across a fabulous story at your non-profit, only to find out that due the confidentiality concerns you can’t actually tell it?
Questions and issues about confidentiality are one of the things that I get asked about a lot and I thought that I’d use today’s post to give you some tips on how to navigate confidentiality with ease.
Why Confidentiality Is Necessary
Depending on the kind of organization that you work for, you might have a very obvious reason as to why confidentiality is so important. For instance if you work with at-risk youth, women who have experience sexual assault or people in other vulnerable situations, it is clear that maintaining their confidentiality is essential. After all, they have come to your organization for support and help. Sharing their story was not their primary goal when they walked through your doors.
It can be a difficult pill to swallow as a fundraiser or communications professional. You know that those stories hold great power and you want to share them with your community. But on the other hand, you know that telling those stories can do more harm that good.
I personally think that it is important for every organization to set boundaries and ground rules for storytelling. This includes what kinds of stories are okay to tell and what stories are off limits. To a certain degree, this will give everyone better clarity on the issue. But even if your organization sets up some rules for this, the person who’s story you are telling ultimately has the final say as to whether or not you get to publish it.
Storytelling is an act of vulnerability and it takes great courage for someone to put themselves out there to share their story. It’s important for us as organizations to honor that act and do our best to use their story in a respectful way.
Practical Tips for Managing Confidentiality
In realizing the importance of confidentiality, I want to offer you some practical tips for navigating this at your organization. My goal in sharing these is not for you to feel more limited, but to see the opportunities for storytelling at your organization while maintaining appropriate standards in storytelling.
Tip #1: Get Everyone On The Same Page
If you’re tired of having endless conversations with colleagues about which stories you can or cannot tell, it’s time to sit everyone down to hash out some ground rules. Allow everyone the space to voice their concerns about organizational storytelling and what makes them worried about it. See if through this conversation you can find some common ground about what kinds of stories your organization is comfortable telling. You may also want to revisit these ground rules every so often as a team.
Tip #2: Allow Clients To Come To You
Usually client stories are the sticky point when it comes to confidentiality. If this is something that your organization is experiencing, then take a step back. Recognize that there are lots of other stories you could be telling – staff, board, volunteers, donors and so on. Rather than poach your clients, focus on telling other stories for a while. Then, extend an invitation for clients to share their stories.
Tip #3: The Story’s Character Has Ultimate Say
Regardless of whose story you are telling, it is imperative that you make that person feel safe and respected. That’s why before you hit publish or send it out to donors, allow the person who’s story it was to read it and have final say. Having this as a ground rule for storytelling at your organization will help put your colleagues’ minds at ease.
Tip #4: It Is Okay To Change Their Name
If someone wants to share their story, but doesn’t want their name published with it that is more than okay! Just let your audience know that the name has been changed to maintain confidentiality. People are often more understanding than we give them credit for.
Tip #5: You Don’t Have to Use Their Picture Either
In addition to it being okay to change someone’s name, you can also choose to use a picture that is not of that person. Again, just name a note in the caption that tells your audience at this is a picture of someone else like your story’s character.
These are just 5 tips to help you navigate confidentiality in your storytelling.
Do you have a specific question or concern about confidentiality and storytelling? Please leave a comment below this post and I would be happy to answer it for you.
Dori Holte says
Hi Vanessa — I interviewed a mother whose son has been successfully matched with a mentor for an organization I work with. The match is going wonderfully well and mom is so grateful because both of her teen sons have significant special needs and even though dad is in the picture, apparently he’s not terribly involved. This leaves a mom, who must work full-time, to find resources on her own. Having another adult to help out and make her son smile is huge … and from the mom’s perspective, the real story. But…. to suggest her husband is a loser, well, that obviously is not a good idea. So is it ever okay to not only change the name, but to change the details to capture the essence of what is going on, but not reveal identity. For instance, I could say that mom is divorced, change the ages of the kids, change some of the details, etc… to really convey the impact of this successful mentoring match — or is that going too far?
Vanessa Chase says
Hi Dori – That is a great question! I think there are many instances when confidentiality is an issue and it becomes necessary to change certain details of the story so that an identity remains confidential. So long as the essence is there and the story is real, I think it is okay to change particular details of the story to maintain confidentiality. I know it’s a fine line to walk and ultimately you have to do what makes the storyteller, you and your organization comfortable.
Q: What about a health and human service agency, which relies heavily on both government and private funding, and works with patients who’s medical records are legally protected?
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Great question, Cody. Yes, the records are legally protected and an organization would not be able to share those. But that does not mean that a grateful patient won’t want to share their story. And if they consent, then it would be perfectly okay to share their story. All you can do is ask people if they would like to share their story, rather than assuming that they will not want to.