The Many Layers of Storytelling in International Development

Growing up, the only time I would see kids who looked like me was in charity ad campaigns. Same skin tone and dark hair, but their reality was very different from my own. They were orphaned, malnourished, and the best way to help them was through a donation to [Insert Charity Name Here]. At least, that was the story that the narrator was presenting on screen.

Those ads, along with images I saw in National Geographic or the news, were my first exposure to “where I was from”. As new immigrants settling in Halifax at the time, my parents had to focus on making enough to house and feed me and my two older sisters, so passing on our culture and language couldn’t be their top priority.

But when I was 8, my parents saved enough for what was my first trip to Sri Lanka. It was nothing like what I had seen on TV. It was a world of contradictions. My extended family were living in what seemed like luxury to me, especially in comparison to our small family apartment. And yet, there were also many families or children with nowhere to live. The huge gap between the rich and the poor was apparent on every street corner.

My parents could have had a pretty good life in Sri Lanka, but they left at a time when there was a lot of civil unrest because they were worried for our safety and wanted us to have the freedom to live our lives the way we wanted. Like many immigrants, they sacrificed and left everything they knew behind, for their children. That act of love, and all the privileges that it’s given us, taught me how important it is for everyone to have access to the same rights and privileges, no matter where they live.

On that trip, I learnt that every story has many layers. The real power lies with the narrator or writer of the story, and how they choose to tell it.

As a fundraiser for an international non-profit, my passion to tell the stories of people from around the world has been my driving force. The women and men who have to fight for their rights every day, who are building up their communities and giving their children access to health and education are my personal heroes. And I see it as my mission to introduce and connect Canadian donors to these often hidden heroes.

Storytelling is all about creating that personal connection. And in fundraising, it’s about communicating in a language that the average Canadian will understand, focusing on the need, and making sure the donor understands the impact that their dollars are making.

But because of my own story, I can see that extra layer to our storytelling that often gets overlooked. The stories we choose to share with our donors in international development not only represent the people we work with, but they can also unintentionally represent the immigrants from those countries who have built their lives in Canada.

With repeated exposure to our fundraising content, and a lack of other content in the media, our stories come to define the Canadian understanding of immigrants who have come from the countries where we work. By simplifying the message so that our donors will understand the need, we are also simplifying the life stories and experiences of these immigrants.

At a time when the “other” is so often discarded and misunderstood, we can be unknowingly perpetuating stereotypes that so many of us are constantly fighting against. In addition, we are also turning away potential donors. A study by Statistics Canada in 2010 shows that immigrant (and diaspora) communities are more likely to give than those born in Canada. But if they find that the stories told in international development don’t fully represent the realities of their countries of birth, they may choose to find other organizations to engage with or other ways to give back.

Fundraising is all about testing, and the final decision usually lies with what our donors respond to. But should we always play to the majority in order to raise the most funds? Or as leaders in improving our societies, can we also find opportunities to educate, and help our donors better understand the complex issues facing people around the world?

I believe that as storytellers, we need to take the time to consider the larger effect of the stories we tell. Our sector is changing, and as our donor base continues to become more and more diverse, there is going to be a need to not only have these conversations, but to reconsider how we frame our stories.