Fundraising with Names Have Been Changed Disclaimers

Homeless girl sitting on a suitcase.
••• ideabug/E+/Getty Images

Stories drive donations, but what if your nonprofit serves at-risk people who need to stay anonymous? Here's the bottom line when telling their stories:

  • Always get written permission from clients before publishing their stories.
  • Find creative ways to shield personal details and identities for clients who could be hurt or embarrassed if their identities or personal information were revealed.
  • Be transparent about what you are doing. Never try to hoodwink donors. They will not forgive if they find out.

The Problem

We all know that telling stories about individuals is the best way to get donors to respond to our fundraising appeals.

It is quite unusual to receive fundraising materials these days that don't include a story about a particular person the charity helped.

We include those stories in our fundraising letters, thank you notes, and in our email communications such as newsletters.

However, what if your charity works with people in need of protection? How do we still tell stories, and stay honest to our donors at the same time?

The Solution

We presented these questions to two of the best marketing and copywriting people working in nonprofit today. They were very generous with their suggestions:

Lisa Sargent, Sargent Communications

Lisa is one of the best copywriters in the nonprofit arena, working with hundreds of clients over the years. She said:

I have two clients for which confidentiality is a huge issue. One helps homeless people and those with drug or alcohol addictions to rebuild their lives. The other works with abused, abandoned and neglected children.

Here are a few things Lisa suggests for dealing with confidentiality issues such as in these two situations:

  • Don’t use a client's real name. Change it and be honest about it. For instance, say “Joanne is not her real name, of course.”
  • Omit details that might give away the person's identity.
  • Use real photos and details only if you have a signed release or explicit permission.
  • Some people are happy to share their story, so always ask.
  • Use photographs of the actual person, but obscure their identity. Get their permission first.
  • Use photos of staff, rather than clients. You can photograph staff helping a client whose back is turned, for instance.
  • Use stock photos and a disclaimer. For example: “At [org name] we respect everyone who comes to us for help – and many are working toward a fresh start in life. So while their stories are true, client names and images may have been changed to protect their privacy. Thank you for understanding."
  • Use a mixture of stories. Blend the details from several profiles into a single person. However, use a disclaimer saying that you have done this. 

Lisa also said:

"I will not write for anyone who makes stuff up or won't disclose the use of stock pics. Moreover, I always let those I write about have a chance to review and approve the story or appeal.
“I always tell them this before I interview them. That is important because many people have no idea if you'll respect their story. I’ve found they are grateful and far more forthcoming knowing they can have one last look. Most of the time, they request only the tiniest edits."

Pamela Grow, Simple Development Systems

Pamela is a sought-after consultant and prolific writer. She specializes in fundraising and marketing for small nonprofits. Pamela responded to my question about the confidentiality of clients and storytelling:

I recently encountered this situation myself whileworking with a small nonprofit organization providing health care to impoverished children. They had shared a few stories on their site and did have signed waivers for the children but, owing to their very young ages; I did not feel comfortable using real names or photographs.
Instead, I created stories based on very distinct individual cases. I changed the child's name, location and sometimes ethnicity. Moreover, I used stock photographs. To make the story seem more real, I humanized the child. But I always included a disclaimer.
Here is an example of one of the profiles:
In many ways, Chris is an ordinary 11-year-old boy. He’s obsessed with baseball and playing Dragons of Atlantis on the computer. He’s the idol (and occasional tormentor) of his seven-year-old sister. And he’s more than a little bit shy. So being the new kid in his fifth-grade class at Garfield Elementary school wasn’t helped by the fact that Chris had three broken front teeth.

The Bottom Line

Keep telling stories. They are what motivate donors, but adopt transparency while you protect those that you serve. Disguise details, but let the emotion shine through. Always alert your audience that you have changed a name for the safety of that individual. If you do not, donors may recoil when they find out the truth. They may feel as though they have been manipulated emotionally. On the other hand, admitting that you've disguised a person or child to protect them will likely be tolerated by any reader. The key is to be open about what you do.