Confidentiality is something that everyone in the nonprofit sector has to take into account when talking about the work of the organization, its people and sometimes this can be a challenge.

How do you tell your story if you can ‘talk’ about the people you are helping, how to do ‘show’ what you’re doing if you can’t show the people you helping?

Appeals that talk loosely about the people an organization is helping are less likely to grab the attention of your audience than those that tell real stories that talk about an individual and how the work undertaken has affected them – where organizations talk about individuals the response can be a lot higher than those that don’t. But how do you do this without breaching someone’s confidentiality?

The easiest answer is to always get permission, get permission as soon into the relationship as you can. One organization I work with advises all their ‘applicants’ that information supplied can be used for a number of purposes, including publicity and appeals for funding. This works well, it makes it clear from the outset – there’s no grey area, and as an safeguard before anyone is mentioned in any ‘public’ information they are contacted and advised what is planned and a second approval is sought.

When it comes to organizations that work with people whose confidentiality must be protected, it makes telling personal stories all the more difficult, but first and foremost confidentiality must be respected, and given.

In some instances, it can be relatively easy to talk about an individual whose name and anything that may identity them must be kept confidential. When writing it can be as simple as using another name, if doing this it can have more impact if you say from the outset that the name used is an assumed one e.g. “John – not his real name …” or, “I’ll call him John ” … or similar wording. 

In “Spare coins for food and a bed” – I was fortunate to get the chaps name and he said it was ok if I were to mention him by name so long as I didn’t say anything more than his first name or show his picture in the post. Had he not agreed I would have used an ‘assumed’ name.

It’s also important to write in a way that won’t give out anything that would identify the person, such as age, location, marital status, children etc – someone reading what you write may put two and two together, so using some creative writing and avoiding anything that could identify them is paramount. 

When it comes to showing pictures of people, it is important to ALWAYS have permission, if you do not have permission to use someone’s image then do not use it – simple. 

If you do need to use an image and the person you’re talking about can’t have their face shown there are ways around this – stock images can work, or use a silhouetted image, if you can use a pixelated image, anything that will help tell the story without betraying the trust of the person you are writing about. If you do use stock images or silhouetted images say why e.g. “We respect the privacy of the people we work with, so while their stories are true, we have changed their name, and  the images used may have been altered to protect their privacy.” 

One organization I work with uses a color coding system for name tags, everyone attending are required to adhere to the what the tags indicate and not take images of those wearing a particular colored tag – this has been in place for a number of years, and to date (touch wood) there’s not been any breach. If there’s a particular individual or individuals in attendance then guests are advised prior to the even that no photography or images using phones etc are permitted. 

It’s important that when dealing with people’s privacy, and safety, that rules are set, that everyone in the organization are aware of these. It’s equally important to be transparent with the people you are communicating with – that they know you have changed names, places, and other identifiers (incl photo’s) to protect the safety and wellbeing of the people you’re working with.

How do you help protect the identify of the people you work with when writing appeal letters, articles etc – please share in the comments below.

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