Communications Strategist Jennifer Lentfer on Creating a New Narrative for Nonprofits
Jennifer Lentfer is a farm girl turned international aid worker turned writer/poet, writing coach, and communications strategist. She is the creator of the blog, how-matters.org, and was named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter” at @intldogooder. She has served with Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, American Red Cross, UNICEF, and Firelight Foundation, and most recently, Thousand Currents. She is the co-editor of “The Development Element: Guidelines for the future of communicating about the end of global poverty” and Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, a book that features the growing community of grantmakers that find and fund visionary leaders around the world.
Hi Jennifer! We recently learned about your work as Director of Communications at Thousand Currents. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in nonprofit communication work?
Up until the last six years of my career in the sector, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) had always been a part of my job title or description, driven by the “what works?” question. But because data and stories were collected for donors, I found program results – good or bad – were rarely shared widely. I often found myself having to make peace with unanswered and unanswerable questions.
As I eventually entered and worked in the headquarters of international NGOs, I found the focus was on keeping the machine running, the brand strong, the money flowing. Thus the reality of the work on the ground I had experienced—two steps forward, two steps back—was rarely, if ever portrayed that way to the general public. I found real power, real strategy-setting related to an organization’s means of raising funds, i.e. how aid organizations portray themselves.
One way for me to grapple with these questions was a career shift from M&E to communications. And thankfully, for the past four years, I’ve been at Thousand Currents, where we invited our donors and supporters to grapple with unanswered questions along with us and where we are committed to telling truer stories of how we change the world.
Can you tell us how you transitioned from M&E to communications?
Well, the first step in the transition was that I was laid off from a job in 2010, so I had a lots of time and a severance package to start my blog, how-matters.org. There I built up my writing and social media skills until joined the creative team at Oxfam America, whose communications strategies I had largely respected over the years, and where I could focus on portraying how aid can be more effective. Then I joined a group of “writers who don’t write, write for people who don’t read” at the Barefoot Guide Connection to produce a guide on the real work of social change. Then I started teaching international development to graduate students in the Georgetown University Public Relations & Corporate Communications Master’s Program, so that I could learn what they know and so together we could identify what a new generation of communications professionals needs to embrace nuance without turning the public off.
Ultimately I kept following my values, finding jobs or gigs where I could learn or experiment. Teaching continues to feed my curiosity still as I now teach “Storytelling and Communicating for Social Change” in the University of Vermont Masters in Leadership for Sustainability Program. I think nature teaches us that we are always in transition, and that’s always how I’ve tried to guide my career.
Can you tell us about the process of creating media at Thousand Currents? Does your approach differ from traditional nonprofit media? If so, how? Why did you decide on this approach?
First and foremost, the Communications Team serves to highlight the innovation, ideation, and success of our Global South partners, who face some of the globe's biggest issues in their communities. We also aim to bring attention to these issues by visibilizing our own learning journey in accompanying our partners in order to 1) humanize (portray) our partners in a dignified, self-determined way, 2) offer alternatives ways of living/working that are insightful and inspiring to all people fighting for food, climate, and economic justice.
The Communications Team, therefore, is not part of the Fundraising Team. Rather we are embedded within the Programs Team so that we can identify opportunities to frame and communicate about our partners' work according to our values as an organization and as a team. From “86-yr-old grandma” to “8th grader,” there’s no dumbing down in our content. We respect our global audiences enough to invite them to reflect on what are deeply-rooted issues. When our storytelling is rooted in shared analysis, we can connect person-to-person rather than giver-receiver. When everyone is invited to see themselves as part of the problem and the solution, we chip away at the white saviorism and strengthen global solidarity.
Can you tell us how storytelling changes when communications in a nonprofit is disconnected from fundraising?
When storytelling is no longer just be treated as a means to an end, i.e. fundraising, it can be a manifestation of our vision and goals as organizations. It also gives communicators the room to help reverse and expand people’s notions of “the other” so that people in rich countries can alter our harmful worldviews.
We can redefine our roles as communicators to tell compelling stories without trivializing people’s lives. We can promote a more nuanced narrative of how lasting, transformational change really happens.
I believe this also offers more respect to our supporter base, when we can acknowledge their ability to learn and grow, rather than treating them a transactional, manipulative, we-just-want-your-money ways. At this stage in history, it is more important than ever for nonprofits to reflect our full humanity.
What are some common ethical issues that you see within nonprofit communications and visual storytelling?
Take a moment and think about how you most often hear humanitarian and development work portrayed in the public discourse? Two divergent narratives come to my mind.
First, international aid is unashamedly tied to domestic power relations and foreign policy objectives, money is wasted, and day-to-day aid work is challenging, if not futile. The narrative goes something like this: So-and-so country is poor or vulnerable. We [rich countries] try to help them. So-and-so is still poor and vulnerable.
On the other hand, according to many international agencies and NGOs, our day-to-day work in the aid sector is instantly transformative, not to mention selfless. The narrative goes something like this: So-and-so person is poor or vulnerable. We [the organization] helps so-and-so. So-and-so is not poor anymore.
That’s a pretty polarizing view of global development – all good or all bad. People working on the ground in humanitarian or development aid know that neither is an accurate picture of reality. And in either portrayal, everyday people living in those poor countries remain the subjects of interventions from rich countries or by people from rich countries.
Depicting “those in need” as incapable and passively awaiting rescue by outsiders has to stop. It’s not only unethical. It’s also inaccurate. This type of communications is antithetical to the mission of international NGOs, and it is racist, classist, exploitative, and immoral.
You also help run a website called How Matters. Can you tell us a little about your work there? Why is it important?
How-matters.org was created at a time when the internet was fun, when we had real conversations, and the surge of connecting with people online and around the world was still exciting.
Joining the aid Twitterati at that time allowed me to make the case for community-driven development. What I found from those discussions was that I could trust my ever-evolving voice and distinguish it from the aid establishment blow-hards. I developed a thick skin and it made me a student of influence – how decisions are made and how minds are changed. Claiming our “expertise” is important, in that most of us around the world remain unheard, and are socialized to minimize our strengths and contributions. Hence one of my mantras: There is no “voice for the voiceless.” Only those not listening.
Today, about half of how-matters.org posts are by guest bloggers. I’m proud I can offer a platform especially to women of color from the Global South. Each one of us represents the dispersed nature of knowledge.
What happens when we acknowledge that people are experts in their own lives and communities? What happens when expertise is defined by a humility rooted in the continual commitment to learning? These are some of the questions we’re still exploring on how-matters.org almost ten years later after it was created.
Much of your work addresses re-imagining nonprofit work. What are some ways storytellers could work with nonprofits differently?
I think it’s important for storytellers to lead not just with their skills and experience, but their “why.” Why do you want to tell stories? What are the injustices and the solutions you see that your stories, photos, films will help visibilize for people? How do you see yourself as part of a larger ecosystem of change, not just a vendor for the fundraising department? Connect. Build relationships.
Don’t pitch your portfolio only. Share how you can help nonprofits reshape and reframe the international development narrative – not to just make sure organizations are doing their best, but respecting, humanizing, and upholding the dignity of everyone involved. Most importantly, share the process that you see for inviting more people to have a seat at the table, to tell their own stories. And this matters because this is how stereotypes, generalizations, victimization, exploitation, and heroism are exposed, challenged, and healed.
Many storytellers feel that they cannot push back with nonprofits to create more ethical media. What is your advice to storytellers looking to create compelling stories for nonprofits but who want to steer clear from poverty porn or imagery with skewed power dynamics?
Firstly I’ll say that I do believe a pushback IS worth it, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, even if you feel there’s a total shutdown or dismissal of you or your concerns. The path is cleared. Seeds are planted. You create a little more room for someone else to do the same next time.
So first connect and appeal to the decision-makers’ higher selves. Remind people on NGO communications or fundraising teams that their fundamental roles are to create opportunities for people to connect with universality of the human experience, to help reimagine the world, and support those who are holding the powerful to account. Reiterate over and over again your commitment to build narratives and share stories from a space of what it means to build thriving communities anywhere in the world.
When this foundation is set, then the negotiation for more time and resources is born from a place of shared values, rather than competing objectives.
I unapologetically believe that every time you stand up for the truth you know deep inside you, you are changed. Every time you learn lessons that support you to be a more effective advocate for what people need, for what the world needs. And isn’t that our jobs in this sector at the end of the day!?
It requires courage. And it’s worth it.