Let’s not tell our sad stories

About halfway into the movie Jerry Maguire, Dorothy, played by Renée Zellweger, goes out to dinner with her new boss, Jerry, played by Tom Cruise.

They’re just colleagues, but Dorothy is harboring a serious crush, and the romantic setting encourages them to fall into the pattern of a typical first date. They begin to discuss their personal lives, and specifically, their romantic failures.

That’s when Dorothy suddenly leans in and says, “Jerry? Let’s not tell our sad stories.”

Jerry... Let's not tell our sad stories.

Everyone has a sad story to tell

There are plenty of sad stories to go around, and that’s especially true of people who are on the receiving end of charitable work. This poses a challenge for nonprofits that want to increase donations:

If you focus on happy stories, you’ll avoid making your audience feel depressed. But then, will people feel an urgency to give?

Insight may lie in a series of studies related to brain chemistry. The research of neuroeconomist Paul Zak indicates that the most effective stories follow the narrative arc and elicit both happy and sad feelings.

In various studies in Zak’s lab, subjects watched a story about a man and his terminally ill son. Their brains tended to produce two chemicals:

  • Cortisol, which keeps us focused and correlates to a sense of distress
  • Oxytocin, which is associated with care, connection, and empathy

Those whose brains produce both cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate money generously to a stranger and, in a separate experiment, to a charity that helps sick kids.

The amount of oxytocin released actually predicted in both cases how much money people would donate.

In other words, stories need tension to keep people engaged, but they must also elicit feelings of connection. They must be relatable.

Against poverty porn

There’s a better reason not to harp on the sad stories of beneficiaries: it can objectify and demean them.

Raising money through images and stories of pity and guilt is not hard to do, writes Jennifer Lentfer in The Guardian. But it’s time for us to trust the public with nuance, she says.

“Non-profit organisations face scrutiny about approaches that raise awareness and money but that do not invite the public to question why poverty exists in the first place. “

Portraying people with dignity and respect is a critical part of telling compelling stories without trivializing your story subjects. Lentfer quotes Theo Sowa, chief executive of the African Women’s Development Fund:

“When people portray us as victims, they don’t want to ask about solutions. Because people don’t ask victims for solutions.”

Perpetuating stereotypes – including white savior stereotypes – can be a pitfall of nonprofits that want to motivate donors. The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) has been vocal about this over the years, creating the Golden Radiator Awards to honor fundraising videos that challenge stereotypical perceptions.

They’ve also produced some funny videos themselves.


Let’s tell stories of empowerment

At last year’s SwithPoint conference, keynote speaker Marco Werman’s refrain was, “Pass the mic.”

When we tell others’ stories, we have an enormous responsibility to truth, integrity, and respect. “Passing the mic” gives the subjects power to direct the conversation and share their own stories, rather than having that power lie completely with the person behind the camera.

One way we do this at Open Eye is by conducting a call with all story subjects before we sit down for the interview. We have information about them already – our client has provided us with it – but we want to hear their story in their own words.

When we write our story plan, we use the narrative arc to tell the story of a person being empowered – not one of a helpless victim. This is just one way; there are always more opportunities for us to pass the mic, skip the sad stories, and focus on our shared humanity.

Featured photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash


Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.