A few months ago Newsweek posted this in depth article calling Cambodian anti-trafficking and human rights activist Somaly Mam’s story into question. Last Thursday, a statement was issued that she had resigned after a private investigation into the validity of the story she has been telling about herself and some of the girls she works with. I have followed and been inspired by Mam’s work over the years, and this news both saddens and disappoints me. I do not know the truth, only what I read online about other’s speculations. I do know that her story brings to light some important points about the non-profit world and how we tell story. As the President of a small grassroots Non-Profit, The SOLD Project, I can empathize with the fine line between telling stories in a simple way that donors will be able to understand, and meeting the demands of many donors/investors who want to hear the worst. This article is less a response to Mam directly and more of a collection of thoughts on what it means to remain truthful storytellers in a world that uses emotions and marketing to gain customers and donors. I hold no official view on Somaly Mam – but I do have many strong thoughts and beliefs on the importance of not only telling our own truth but also the truths of those we seek to serve.
1. Storytelling // Storytelling is at the heart of any successful non-profit. Whether it’s through film, articles, interviews, photos, blogs or email newsletters – telling story is vital to the life of a non-profit. Story invites people (donors, volunteers, etc) into the work and creates connectedness between donors and the individuals the non-profit serves. This allows the work of the non-profit to be communicated to the masses and reach corners of the world that the non-profit staff or constituents might not be able to. But HOW we tell this story is up to the discretion of the non-profit leaders. This ability to tell story is a double edged sword. On one side, it can provide transparency and create a visual to allow donors to feel connected. On the other side, the story can be manipulated and the truth stretched. This tension is very real and something that we at The SOLD Project experience regularly. For example, it’s always tempting to portray things ‘perfectly’ or use emotion to manipulate the audience. It’s also tempting to over simplify and create ‘easily digestible stories’ for people. Often times the newsletters we send out are very simplified versions of very complex stories. We are working with people, after all. Our general rule of thumb when simplifying and telling story is to ask ourselves if the story would make the constituent proud. Could you show them their film, read them their story, or share their picture with them and see their eyes beam with pride that, yes, that is their story, their picture, their life? And could that person then be proud to share it with the world? If the answer to that question is yes, then you are telling story with dignity.
2. Everyone Wants a Success Story // The non-profits want to tell their success stories. The donors want to hear the success stories. And the higher the highs and lower the lows, the better the story. But is this reality? High’s and low’s are never the full story: Honoring the complexity of real life is what creates results on the ground. Would you want someone to look at your life and only see your great successes and great failures, or would you want to be known along the journey? I would assume the latter. Success stories are why we do what we do, and why donors invest. They are the stories we celebrate and are inspired by. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to be aware of the temptation to go beyond the truth in these moments. It is also important to let the truth be the truth. Specifically in the Anti-Trafficking world, the stories that have been told are the ‘big’ success stories. From Dateline to Somaly Mam’s stories to IJM’s re-usage of the footage from the Cambodian raid that shows underage girls that was taken almost a decade ago. We use and re-use these ‘big’ stories because they are what generate donors and involvement. I often remember what IJM President Gary Haugen once shared about the road to justice being tedious and difficult- and this is the truth. For me, these are the stories that inspire me. Let’s celebrate the success stories but give space for the failures as well. Let’s view success as progress, not as an end goal. My hope is that non-profits will continue to take the higher road in telling their stories with these truths in mind, and that donors will continue to cherish THESE stories and be weary of the ones that seem too perfect or too dramatic.
3. Emotions Create Donors // There are many different ways to generate emotions – from inspirational videos to sharing difficult stories. When we were filming for our Travel With Us piece early last year, our hope was to not only inspire our donors and volunteers but also to inspire our students in the process. Before each shoot we would explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. For example, when our student falls during the dance, (spoiler) she was acting. I had talked with the students about the importance of getting back up again after we fall – whether figuratively or literally. She fell with the understanding and courage of a young woman that wanted to inspire others to get back up. Capturing and sharing emotion through story is extremely important. But again, it can also be manipulated. There are endless articles, classes, degrees, and corporations that focus on the art of storytelling. Stories are a strategy often compiled by trained craftsmen that know the right ingredients to produce the outcome they want. I love the art of storytelling – but I do not like the art of dishonest storytelling. Overemphasizing the dramatic for the sake of “a good story” can easily become dishonest.
4. Having a Personal Mission and Knowing Your Limits // Knowing your limits and articulating where you draw the line in your (or your non-profits) storytelling is extremely important. In early 2013 I was traveling with some dear friends and filmmakers to create a film celebrating The SOLD Project’s five year anniversary. All of us had the same mission: to showcase the work of SOLD and celebrate what we had accomplished in the last five years of prevention work. We were doing so through the story of one young girl in our program, “Mai”. In our month of filming we often came to points of tension: the filmmakers wanting to tell the best story, and me wanting to do it with the utmost dignity. I knew my limits – that I would never manipulate Mai’s quotes to dramatize the story. That I would allow her low moments to be a part of the film. That we would share her story as though it was on-going, not complete (because none of our stories are complete). We would tell her story in a way she would be proud of. In other words, I wanted to make the film for Mai. Not for the donors. The filmmakers, trained in the art of storytelling (and very good at their jobs, I might add) wanted to create the film for the donors. This is their job. And they’re good at their job. But it is my job to create a film I can show to Mai. The donors come second (sorry, donors).
I do not know what was true or false in Mam’s story. But I do hope that this unfortunate occurrence calls non-profits to a higher level of transparency. To cross the fine line of honesty and dishonesty (or overly dramatizing) can lead to disrespecting the victims who truly have suffered, betraying the public trust, and discrediting (in the case of Mam) what might have been much needed work because that line of truth telling was crossed. Telling story with dignity requires inviting people into the messy, admitting we don’t have it all figured out, and trusting that the work you are doing is more important than the fame of doing the work. I hope that this encourages both donors and non-profits to seek progress not perfection and stories that bring dignity not dollars.