How IJM is Protecting Beneficiary Identities
Last week we shared Part-3 in a 4-Part series exploring the ideas and topics discussed in our podcast interview with Brittany Baker from IJM. This week, we’re wrapping that series up with Part-4 and we’ll be talking about how ministries can protect beneficiary identities. Let’s get into it.
As you may know, IJM is working to combat and fight slavery. In almost every occasion, there is a need to protect the identities of the people they are rescuing. At the same time, IJM understands that these stories of rescue, survival, and redemption are powerful stories that can help encourage their donors to get involved with greater financial and prayerful investment. IJM goes to great lengths to protect their beneficiaries, and they have methods that can be used as learning opportunities for many ministries working with similar constraints.
During our conversation, I asked Brittany what IJM is doing to protect the identity of their beneficiaries. This was Brittany’s response, “IJM uses pseudonyms and actors to help protect the identity of the beneficiary.” We went on to discuss transparency in storytelling and donor communication. Brittany said, “I will always advocate for transparency with what you have and the stories you have to tell. My encouragement would be telling a story as real as you can, and with whatever permission you have from the beneficiary. Ultimately, if that beneficiary doesn’t want their face shown, or name shared, I would communicate that and be honest with your audience about that truth. People respond to and relate to someone not wanting the details of their life or face shown to the rest of the world. Your audience will respect that. So we tell our donors, ‘Hey, we’re about to tell you a story and we can’t give you the full details because there is real trauma that we don’t want this person to have to relive.’ People all over the world can identify with that.”
Storytelling is powerful. You’ll hear us say that a lot. But, with that power comes great responsibility. We need to be careful that we are not telling stories at the expense of our beneficiaries. To exploit someone’s story for your own benefits, even if those benefits help others in similar situations, is simply not ok. So, let’s walk through 10 practical ways that we can protect our beneficiaries’ stories, protect the identities of our beneficiaries, and build trust with our donor base.
10 Ways You Can Protect Your Beneficiaries Identity
1. Get Permission
Before IJM tells any story, they first get the individual’s permission, and that’s a practice all ministries should follow. Until you have permission, you should not even entertain the idea of telling that person’s story. Now, I don’t imagine there are that many ministries telling stories and intentionally attempting to exploit or harm the individuals they are serving. Ministries usually make this mistake by simply assuming the beneficiary wants their story told. We have to remember though, some of these people have experienced severe trauma, and it may be too difficult to share these experiences. Let’s make it a practice to always get permission before we tell a beneficiary story.
2. Be Honest
IJM is upfront with their audience about the stories they are telling. If they are using a pseudonym, they communicate that clearly to their audience. If they aren’t telling the full story, then they communicate why they can’t tell the full story. Honesty and transparency are crucial. Your donor will always appreciate that honesty and transparency and in fact, they’ll probably appreciate you and your organization even more because you have shown them you’ve taken so much care to protect your beneficiary.
3. Plan and be Intentional
Assuming you’ve received permission to tell your beneficiary’s story, you now owe it to them to tell their story well. There are multiple reasons for this. First, your beneficiary is entrusting their story to you. When you tell their story, there should be a balance between conflict and hope. If you’re focusing completely on the need or conflict, or alternatively, focusing completely on the hope, then you’re not telling the whole story. If you’re not telling the whole story, you’re not telling the story well. Second, if you’re not telling their story well, it could be ineffective at engaging your audience. Your beneficiary has entrusted their story to you, you owe it to them to tell their story in a way that engages your audience. We have walked through story structures in past articles that can help with this process. In fact, Part-3 in this series walks through The Hero’s Journey. We will also be creating storytelling webinars and videos in the future to help guide you in this process, so stay tuned for that content.
You’ll notice that we are 3 steps into our “practical ways to protect beneficiary identities list,” and we still have not provided guidance for protecting beneficiary identities. Storytelling is powerful, but in order to do it right, there is a level of intentionality and planning you don’t want to ignore. Now, let’s dive into the rest of the list.
4. Name Change (Pseudonyms)
This is the easiest and most obvious idea on the list. There is nothing wrong with changing the name of your beneficiary. Simply communicate to your audience you’re using a Pseudonym. This has become a relatively normal practice in the ministry world, and your donor will not think twice as long as you’re transparent. If you follow IJM’s content, you’ll notice an asterisk next to almost all the names they use. This denotes a pseudonym was used. Simple, yet effective.
5. Hire Actors
Now, let me preface this idea by saying, I realize this will require a greater investment than some ministries can afford. But, IJM will hire actors to dramatize scenes from the beneficiaries’ story. IJM will even build an entire photo and video campaign using actors. The benefit of this idea is that it provides a greater level of immersion for your audience. Remember, the goal is to engage with your storytelling. Using actors is far more effective and allows for greater consistency across a story campaign than simply finding stock photography and content.
6. Blur Faces and Voices
Feel free to blur the faces of your beneficiaries in videos and images. IJM does this all the time. FAI (Frontier Alliance International) has done this to great effect in some of their films as well. FAI will even change the voices at times, similar to the gangster documentaries we’ve all seen where ex-gangsters are testifying against their old gang. Remember, your audience will understand and even appreciate your transparency, simply communicate that you’re trying to protect your beneficiaries’ identity.
7. Alternative Content Avenues
There are multiple mediums that are effective at storytelling. Your beneficiary may not want to appear on camera, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily have an issue with their story being told in other formats. Obviously, make sure you have their permission, but you could tell their story via podcast or written content. Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera, that but shouldn’t limit our storytelling.
8. Change the Location
Don’t be afraid to refrain from sharing or completely change the location of where the story took place. Again, make sure that you communicate to your audience that you have changed the location of the story to protect your beneficiary. Changing the location is a simple yet effective way of protecting your beneficiary, and this can help protect your national partners as well.
9. Detail Reservation
It often isn’t necessary to provide all of the details of the story. Feel free to communicate with your beneficiary that they don’t have to share the details they don’t feel comfortable sharing. Additionally, and more importantly, the details you share publicly can be reserved compared to the details you share privately. For example, you might be able to go into greater detail about a particular story in a closed-door setting or fundraising event verses the details you share about that same story on social media.
10. Be Patient
As we’ve already discussed, many of the beneficiaries you serve are rescued out of extreme trauma. Be patient. You may not have permission to tell your beneficiaries story right away, but place the story in an “archive” and come back to that person’s story later. You may be surprised, a couple of years down the road and that person might be in a place where they are ready and even excited to tell their story. We’re all in process. Be patient with the process.
Protecting the identity of the beneficiary whose story we are telling is incredibly important. Hopefully, these ideas will help you tell more stories while protecting those your serve. Please let us know if we can help you come up with more ideas, and if you need help storytelling or developing stories using a story structure like the Hero’s Journey, we would be more than happy to come alongside your ministry to help.