Empowering Is Unpowering: How To Stop Appeasing Donors With Comfortable Storytelling

Ethos Consulting Group

Ok, confession time. Right now, all I want to do is watch K-drama. In bed. Drooling over tteokbokki…and my favorite scenes from Goblin.

So, yeah, a typical working-mom-from-home morning.

Instead, I’m ignoring the urgent call of Gong Yoo in period Goryeo garb to spend time here on the blog!

Very. Exciting. Times.

Now, I love what I do. I love nonprofit storytelling. Most of all, I’m amazed that I’ve actually been able to turn my passion into an actual job.

But here’s the thing with stories. You have to be careful where you put your power.

There’s an immense amount of power nonprofits give their supporters through donor-centered language and storytelling. This creates an unhealthy dynamic between donors and the people you serve.

If you visit an online appeal or crowdfunding event, chances are the word “empower” will pop up somewhere on the page―even if it’s in a more nuanced “show don’t tell” savior mentality sort of way.

And it’s a big problem.

Modern marketing teaches us that the consumer (i.e. the donor) is ALWAYS the hero of the story. To get them to buy or give what you want them to, they must occupy a central role in your narrative. The issue is, they’re not your only “main character”.

This is something which has bothered me for quite some time, but it was a yoga teacher who finally tipped me over the edge.

Here’s what she said:

“This room is filled with so much good reiki energy right now, let’s close our eyes and send it all to all the animals suffering in the Ukraine.”

Now, I admit I’m a pretty woo-woo person. I burn sage. Do earthing. Practice yoga. Buy fun spell books. I completely left a hasidic lifestyle to pursue a life that felt more connected to the Universe rather than dogma.

I believe that everything IS energy…so what’s my freakin’ problem?

It didn’t cost me anything. And that’s exactly the problem.

Imagine if you saw a dog hit by a car, and instead of calling for help, you just said:

“Nah, I’ll send that bleeding puppy some good vibes instead.”


Doing good isn’t easy. If it’s easy, we’re probably doing it wrong.

It also doesn’t finish up with a pitch to buy energy-protectors to stick on your cell phone. Which is EXACTLY what that yoga teacher did. Right after her wow-some moment of reiki-silence.

And. People. Bought. Them.

Everyone got permission to go home to their organic, non-GMO, energy-field lives. And not feel one whit of bad about it. After all, those sad animals got some big positive ju-ju that night.

It would have been ten times better if she’d just asked for a donation to an animal-focused nonprofit or shared a list of orgs doing real work for those impacted by the war.

A concrete, tangible solution that requires effort and sacrifice…not a moment of silence.

Instead, all of us were in our safe little yoga studio, quietly comforted by the thought that our very powerful spiritual energy was going to…do what???

Stop the war?

Heal some wounded Ukrainian deer in the woods?

Which is why we really need to stop “empowering.”

When we put our donors into a position of empowerment, it isn’t healthy, especially for the people we serve. Using a word like empower in donor-focused storytelling creates a dynamic in which one side has all the power (the donor), while the other somehow lacks power, instead of a partnership of equals.

I don’t know about you, but if some rando on the street approached me and said, “I’m empowering you because I gave you the ability to change your life,” I’d probably tell them to…well, it wouldn’t be the E-word.

But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we use this word in a case for giving.

Here’s how we can do better:

  1. Focus on solutions that invite equal partnership with the communities we serve rather than giving them what we think they want or need.
  2. Bring the voices of these communities into the storytelling and marketing process itself. Too often, the executive board is still the determining voice of a nonprofit, rather than people actually impacted by the work.
  3. Hire people from the communities you work with. Provide internships for teens and students to learn career-building skills like communications, office management, marketing, writing…and whatever other operations you have going on.
  4. Ditch the word “empower” altogether. Instead highlight the incredible power of the people you work with―their own accomplishments and achievements (without tying it back to the donor.)
  5. Create opportunities for donors, volunteers, and community members to actually meet each other, tackle new initiatives and solutions, or to celebrate something big for your organization.

Remember, your job is NOT always to make your donors feel safe.

Safe is overrated. Safe is easy. Safe is getting sucked into K-drama instead of blogging about unequal power dynamics in donor-focused marketing.

Ironically, “safe” is also the most risky, because it’s also the death of your potential impact and growth. Don’t do any of your people the disservice of presenting a safe path tucked in their yoga studios without confronting the problems of the world head on.

Namaste 🙏

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