With gala season in full swing, nonprofit storytelling is at the forefront of our minds. However, is there such a thing as crossing a line with the content? When a story becomes uncomfortable, should you stop, or is that the point at which the audience truly engages?
The fine line of nonprofit storytelling, explored by Helen Saks, CEO of Striking Media.
It wasn’t so many years ago that nonprofits protected their grantees fiercely with regards to sharing their stories at fundraising galas – they didn’t want to talk about their experiences – it was demeaning – they didn’t feel good about accepting support so we shouldn’t ask them the difficult questions. It was a subject I always wrestled with, as a keen supporter of the nonprofits in our community but also as a lover of a good story. Never wanting to ‘expose’ anyone or to put anyone in an uncomfortable position, in fact quite the opposite, I always saw it as empowering to share.
The strength it takes to sit in front of a camera and in front of an interviewer and share a story never fails to amaze and humble me. To have the dignity to say ‘I fell on hard times, I sought support, but today I’m in a better place and I’m thankful’ will always inspire me.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of non profit grantees at this point and maybe it’s COVID related, but I feel like their stories get more and more powerful. Nothing is being held back. The truth is being shared in all its glory.
The Community Foundation for Northern Virginia every year tells a number of heartwarming community stories showcasing the results of their grants for their annual gala. The grants are wide reaching and impactful and are meticulously planned to reach those who may otherwise be overlooked. This year, for their first in-person gala since COVID, the community grantee videos include some incredibly moving stories.
United Community created a program to teach recent immigrants to the US about the tax system – a mystery to many who live here for years. Taught in their mother tongue, tax rebates were one of the issues on the agenda. Led by community ambassadors – folks who inspired confidence as they came from the same neighborhood as those who were learning – these workshops turned out to be life changing. From the individual who came to the workshop simply because she had some time on her hands, only to find out that she was due a $6000 tax rebate, to the ambassador in tears as she’s living “the American Dream” by helping her friends and neighbors access funds that they had no idea they had the right to. This is tear jerking stuff. Who knew a story about tax would make you cry!
A Farm Less Ordinary – a great name for an extraordinary business. Set up and led by Greg Masucci, inspired by his autistic son. A Farm Less Ordinary creates employment opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. It provides dignity, friendship, opportunity and a paycheck, as well as much needed respite for carers. Watching the ‘growers’ at work is inspiring and uplifting but hearing Greg’s story of his non verbal son’s successes on his journey moves you to tears. Not least due to Greg’s passionate, loving delivery that could never be rivaled by a board member telling the same tale from a distance. It HAS to be Greg telling us this story. His perspective is that of a loving father who recognized a great need in our community and took impressive actions to create opportunity. It is deeply moving. Thank goodness he was allowed to share his story and that he was brave enough to do so. Did he cry, yes! Did we cry, yes! Do we care, no!
Thirdly, SafeSpot. SafeSpot provides hope and healing for children who have been sexually abused in Fairfax County. A shocking statistic of one in ten children. It’s a place where children can feel safe, and share their story once, so that their abusers can be prosecuted without the endless, traumatic re-telling of the abuse. For many of us, it is unthinkable, but sadly, it is a much needed center. But how to tell their story in a compelling, compassionate manner? Never has Striking Media been more in admiration, than in this instance. A board member who had discovered SafeSpot by coincidence had her own history of child abuse to share, explaining why this center is so essential and why we must do everything we can to ensure that no child is turned away due to a lack of resources. Her story moves, it makes the hair on your arms prickle, even after multiple viewings. It is uncomfortable to watch, you get a sense of what is coming and you don’t want to hear it because we don’t want to believe it could be true, but it is as compelling a story as you will ever hear.
But herein lies the question, is it too much? How do you present such a story at a gala event while respecting that it may be triggering for some guests in the room? How to maintain dignity and respect at all times? All of these things were front and center for The Community Foundation to ensure that everybody who heard the story felt protected and directed if they needed support. The video has a warning ahead of it on screen, and the master of ceremonies carefully worded script contained a warning of the powerful content to come.
Our feeling at Striking Media, from the outset, was that this is a special story. From the pre-interview chat that had the interviewee, the interviewer and the client in tears. From the moment we shared in the studio in capturing the story, with minimal people in the space and every effort made to make it as comfortable as possible, given the circumstances. We always felt like this story would move the audience in an unprecedented way.
On the night of the gala, the story played out to the 500-strong audience and more than a few tears were wiped away, as a pin could have been heard dropping in the ballroom. Following the conclusion, a gentleman approached the interviewee and said to her ‘Your story was so powerful. I just donated $15,000.” The interviewee cried, the interviewer who happened to witness this moment, also cried. It was a breathtaking moment and one that we will never forget.
In our opinion at Striking Media, it is essential these stories are told. Some interviewees have described it as like therapy. Almost all express their desire to give back. It is hard to watch these stories and not be inspired to give. They are so emotive they provoke a response, which is exactly what our nonprofit friends need.
People are incredible, they survive the unimaginable and they focus their energies on giving back and making the world a better place for those that follow, even if they wished with all their heart that nobody would follow in their footsteps of victims of abuse or misfortune.
In Striking Media’s role as storytellers, we encourage the nonprofits to share their stories with the world, to inspire, to raise awareness and to raise much needed funds. In our hands, these stories will always be treated with the utmost respect.
Striking Media is a woman-owned business with over 25 years experience offering visual communication services, specializing in videography and photography. We are based in Falls Church, VA.
If you’re looking for a video producer in Virginia, DC, or MD please reach out!