Nneka Allen On Building Empathy Using the First Person Narrative

Nneka Allen Fundraising Superheroes

There is no replacement for the first-person narrative. 

The best lessons are the ones that connect with audiences on a personal level. As fundraisers, it’s important to make these connections and relate with your supporters from a personal level. 

Nneka Allan considers herself a Griot, an African term for historian and storyteller. She has made it her mission to create spaces to share the history and experiences of black fundraisers. As the founder of the Empathy Agency and co-creator of Our Right To Heal and her newest book, Collecting Courage, Nneka has lived up to her Griot title. 

In our interview, we dive into important topics in storytelling such as
  • The power of the first-person narrative in building empathy
  • How the bright papers and collecting courage came to be, and how she settled on the theme of the book
  • The challenges she faced in creating collecting courage during a pandemic
  • How to open up and accept vulnerability in storytelling 


In today's podcast, we speak with Nneka Allen on how to build empathy using the power of storytelling.

Hello and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes podcast, I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and all of us here Driven love to learn about the newest ideas and trends in philanthropy. As a non-profit software solution. We want to help organizations unlock their data’s true potential, allowing them to raise more funds efficiently and a lot less all. We love to talk to your organization about your fundraising goal to reach out to us at trustdriven.com.

Storytelling holds incredible power. People connect to the emotion and arc of characters as they relate to the challenges they face, especially when presented with a story.

Nick Allan is a fundraiser and founder of the empathy agency, where she works with organizations to improve their company culture around diversity and equity. She also co-wrote Collecting Courage, a collection of stories of hope, joy and freedom from black fundraisers across the US in Canada. She is an incredible woman, doing incredible things within the industry.

She's one to follow, and I'm so excited to have her here today. So thank you for joining us.

Hi, Sabrina. So good to be with you today.

So you wrote the introduction to Collecting Courage. Where you offered a lot of context to the reader around North America's history and that Canada is not that different from our neighbours in the South. So why is it important to make that connection and provide that context to readers?

Well, simply put, it's because identity matters you know, it influences the culture we create. It shapes what we believe and how we behave and if our true national identity is hidden, then nationally, we will continue to hide in the false narrative that we don't share the same colonial history and racial divide with the United States, and that's simply not true. There has been significant, purposeful suppression of history, things, for instance, like the two hundred years of slavery in Canada.

Few Canadians are even aware that slavery existed in Canada. But many Canadians know about the Underground Railroad and Canada as sort of the beacon of hope. This is an active and conscious element to the narrative, the national narrative and the development of our national identity. So as long as we continue to believe that we are better and different from the United States, we can never begin to repair the racial inequities in our society. We must investigate and acknowledge the truth.

If we want to change, Canadians must decide if we want to change and if we do, then we need to begin to seek the truth.

Yeah, because you can't change what you don't acknowledge.

That's exactly right.

Yeah, because I know, like for me, growing up in our school system, it was often we talked about the mistreatment of the Aboriginal community and my teacher did a really great job of actually having people come in that were part of that community to speak on their experiences and how residential school systems affect generations. So I think that when I was reading the book, it really helped me to get that context because it puts you in that mindset to really take in all the other stories that appreciate it from a whole other level.

That that's what you're describing is the power of the first-person narrative. There's no replacement for it, right? It is one of the fundamental ways that we make meaning of the world and ourselves. So unless we come in contact with those stories of other people, we'll continue to believe the world is just what we can see.

Oh, exactly. You did a really good job with that throughout your career. You know, not only sharing your story but having other women come and share their personal experiences.

In 2019, you approached AFP to create a series known as The Papers, and you gave writers the theme, "our right to heal" and let them interpret that and create their own work based on that phrase. So what led you to choose that theme? What inspired you?

So there are many things that inspired me, but I would say the primary reason involves simply the humanity of the black woman, something that is rarely honoured. I wanted to share stories and I wanted my sisters to share their stories of pain just to lay it bare in front of people.

But also I wanted the vulnerability and strength that we have in our healing to be felt. I wanted a more complete and human image of black women to emerge.

So you've done a tremendous job, like I mentioned, having a platform for the stories. Why is creating this space for other black women to do the same, so important? What was the biggest challenge you face when putting together the Bright Papers? And also your latest book, Collecting Courage?

Well, you know, the thing that is always so fascinating to me and really drives my curiosity is what happens when we as black women hear other black women's experiences, the validation that is inherent in that process is always spectacular and almost overwhelms me every time I experience it. And so there is a substance of something that happens for us when we realize we're not alone when we realize that our experiences are not, you know, we're not the only ones suffering and that we're not crazy and that these things do happen and are happening.

And so in knowing that there is a sense of community and in that sense of community, there is greater healing. When writing our right to heal. I would say actually not writing it, but putting the project together. The most challenging part was the microlearning video, conditional invite, creating that with no budget and more importantly, just the concept of tackling a theme of belonging versus inclusion. The ability to deal with that in one to two minutes was a real challenge to me, and which is the reason why I brought art to bear because I thought the only way to really touch people, help people feel the difference between belonging and inclusion was to do it through an art form.

And so we chose spoken word and then doing that and finding people who are talented enough to help us create that with no budget was overwhelmingly difficult. There are a lot of very generous people who contributed their time voluntarily.

And also I paid some people out of my personal, out of my own bank account, but so glad that I did. So glad that we did and we were able to put that together. Collecting Courage, I would say the most challenging thing was simply the timing. We started talking about the idea of a book in December of 2019.

Then a more serious conversation ensued in the last summer, in July and in August, we agreed to write and publish the book by November. So we began in August and we finished the book in November. So timing just pure time, not having an event, wanting more of it.

Three months is a very short period of time to write, collect, edit and release for sure.

Exactly. Yeah.

So just as it is important to share these stories, it's also very important to listen. What makes a good listener in your opinion and why is it important for everyone else to read and embrace these stories?

Yeah, I think a good listener is someone who uses more than their ears to hear. I think they use their whole body, their eyes and their heart generative listening is really powerful. It requires us to let go and to let come to connect more fully with the source of who we are and who we want to be.

In the process of hearing stories are truth in their light, if we let them, they tell a story about the realities of race in the North American charitable sector. And these stories are an indictment of a sector that has that was created to solve problems. And also care for people, right, and in these if these realities are not faced, what does that say about the soul of charity, the charitable sector? Like what does it say about who we are as a sector if we can't actually translate that caring into caring for everyone, not just the people we deem to be our beneficiaries.

Does that resonate?

Yeah, that does, because I know for me like I only got familiarized with the whole non-profit industry. But a year ago when I started working for Donor Engine and as somebody who my whole life viewed the non-profit world as an outsider, I thought, oh, it's great. They're you know, they get to help people every day.

And, you know, like, it must be a lot of fun. And as I started doing these interviews, I remember one girl. I asked her a question and I said, you must take a lot of selflessnesses to be a fundraiser. She said, I just want to pause for a second. She's like, yes, you have to be selfless. But there is a line where you have to advocate to have the right pay.

You shouldn't always expect to do things for free because you feel and that was the first time that I took a step back and I was actually seeing it from the other perspective. And I was realizing like there's a huge gap in this industry that isn't being filled. It isn't being acknowledged by a lot of people.

It isn't known but advocated for unless you're actually.

Indeed, absolutely. I resonate with that. You know, the reality is in all our jobs, in order for us to thrive, we have to be well first. Our well-being has to be whole. Right. And so if that isn't the case, then you really can't contribute in the way that you were designed to contribute. And so that we know all of the various things that go into making up our well-being.

Right. And so if we're not seen at work for a race at work, if we aren't paid enough at work, if our work is undervalued, all of those things contribute to our sense of well-being.

Sherrie's story I personally related to because when she was talking about how as a fundraiser, she's putting so much into her job to care for other people that you have to care for herself. I instantly thought of like seven other women in my life who are going through the same thing right now.

They're doing everything they can to support their families, to support their work, to find work and do whatever. I touched base with them they are like I'm exhausted. I can't do this. So which she talked about how she wakes up in the morning. She does her dance routine. She takes those minutes to really care for her body. I'm like, I got to share that with other people of it.

And that's the power of narrative, right, that we share our truth.

Although Sherrie shared something really vulnerable. Right. She didn't have it together. She knows you know, there were things she needed to figure out. She was neglecting herself. Her putting that forward then creates a pathway forward or a pathway for other people to connect, identify, find strength, find solutions. Yeah.

Oh, totally.

I know for me, like as a young woman starting my career, I was told by a lot of mentors and colleagues like you can't talk about your mental health. You have to put a strong front forward. People are not going to hire you if they think you have issues. And so I know, like in my internships, at least I would go in it. I would hide every weakness I possibly could. And, you know, really everything that you're saying embodies is kind of what I've learned in the last few months.

It's through posts on social media when people are saying, you know what, I'm not OK. And these are the steps that I took to heal myself, that I'm actually beginning to learn to appreciate who I am as a person and who I am as a whole. That's right.


So the phrase there are two sides to every story is often thrown around, but it is very important to understand all aspects of the story perspective. As we've been discussing, you've worked with Chris Conroy to coach organizations on a racial equity journey.

And what I found really interesting was that the coaching offers both perspectives. You as a black woman, Chris, as a white man, and together you were able to deconstruct whiteness and explore identity and that impact on culture. So can you explain a bit more about the importance of having these two perspectives and training? How did you guys come to that conclusion to work?

Yes, Chris, best partner ever can I just say, we met a few years ago in New Orleans at a conference and we just began to collaborate around, you know, our individual work.

He was he also has a company. We both have independent companies. We bring them together to provide this coaching. And the more we began to just explore his modality and my modality and philosophies, we saw a lot of space to co-create, and so we've created this program together.

We each bring our experiences of navigating whiteness to the table and our experience as well, they are distinct also have intersections. Right. And so Chris can readily relate to the emotions of denial and anger, guilt and shame shared by the white clients.

And he can share from his own life how he navigated those things, and he can relate with some of the experiences that they share. I offer the same for clients of colour, but I also offer the truth about the impact of racism right in a person. Right. My history as a descendant of the Underground Railroad and a six-generation Canadian, my ancestors were enslaved. So I'm able to paint a graphic picture of what white supremacy, colonization and racism does and is doing.

Even today are our stories, mine and Chris' I view them as like two sides of the same coin. And people can find themselves in either one of our stories or in both. And I think the beauty of what we do is that we don't bring forward a singular story. There's power and a multitude of stories.

How is the reception been from the people you've worked with this training? Have a lot of people come to you and really appreciated the two sides?

Has working with you guys opened their eyes up to something that they didn't see before?

Absolutely. One hundred percent. There is an awakening to two truths that they weren't aware of before. Often I have found, we have found, people get angry when they realize how much information or how much historical information they didn't have or didn't know that nobody made them aware of, or that was, as we said earlier, consciously hidden. Right. And so as we begin to reveal the context in which we live here in Canada are beginning to explore identity and then the role identity plays in the context is really powerful.

Right. And the beautiful part about it is that this work is internal work and we have control over only one person, and that's us. Right. And so while people may emerge with anger and then sometimes guilt and shame and grief. They also have the capacity to do something about who they are in this context, and so that's really empowering. And so naturally, when people enter the process, honestly, the natural next step, the natural desire is to change is to transform.

Transition into another way of living.

Yeah, one of the things that I really appreciated that you mentioned in another interview is that people often come to you and they say, what is the one tangible thing I can start doing tomorrow to help me create a more equitable environment. There's t not really one thing that you can do that would make all of a difference, like you answered, the last question, you know, really starts with yourself, your mindset, checking your bias and educating yourself.

Mm hmm. Absolutely. Yep.

So when people think of storytellers, they often describe them as confident, charismatic, but vulnerable. Probably isn't a word that they would use right away to tell a story not only takes courage but incredible vulnerability. And as both a storyteller and a fundraiser, how do you open up and accept that?

I really love this question. So, you know, vulnerability doesn't come naturally to me given my personality type.

I'm aware of that. Very aware of that. But what I know is that one of the most important aspects of my life is my ability to connect with other people. I need to have a connection. I must be connected to people. I want people to know me and I want to know people. So in order to be connected in meaningful ways, I have to let people know me. That's vulnerability. I have to let them see me experience who I am.

Right. And that's not just like the great parts. Right. That's also knowing the joy and the pain. And sometimes the suffering. Right. So I commit myself to vulnerability. It's an intentional act, you know because I understand it's a relationship to connection. You know, people who want to learn, who want to lean into vulnerability must first know themselves really well. So, again, back to that personal inner work, right? They must begin by understanding all the parts of their identity.

I do an identity exercise with my clients when I begin one on one engagement. And it's really interesting what emerges from those conversations because we're rarely invited to consider our identity. In some way and then to look at how it influences how we show up and how it influences the culture we create around ourselves. Right. And what that means for other people, you know, once you know who you are, you can begin to invite other people to get to know you too.

One hundred percent, yeah, because I think that a lot of the issues with vulnerability come from insecurity. And so if you don't put in that work and your confidence is another thing, it's a skill you grow. But if you're not confident in knowing who you are, like you mentioned, you can't share that with the world. I wanted to also get your thoughts on leaders because I think that sometimes it might be hard to open up as a leader because to be vulnerable might be seen as like a shift of power or you're giving up some of you know, that status.

How can leaders learn how to be more vulnerable with their employees?

Well, you know, I would reiterate the same points I just made. But, you know, it's interesting. How people perceive what's powerful and what true power is, and I would suggest that you know, being vulnerable inherently in vulnerability is power. And you know, this notion of losing power, losing power to the people who report to you is sort of wound up in this is what you mentioned earlier about not wanting to show any of your flaws, not not not wanting to show any of your deficiencies, things, the areas where you maybe you need to grow.

I mean, essentially, if people are inviting you into your workplace and you're saying you can't share about your mental health or you can't share about things you don't know, they're saying you can't come here and be human. So then that makes us want to go and put on the persona that we are perfect, that we know everything, nobody knows everything, that's impossible.

Right, and so naturally, if that's what we're ascribing to, if that's what we're trying to achieve, we will develop insecurity. There's a whole lot to be insecure about if you are portraying yourself as someone who knows everything. Right. But if we just lean into understanding ourselves. And accepting there are there parts of ourselves that are really nice and there are other parts of ourselves not so nice, you know if we accept that and we acknowledge that and we make a commitment to maybe grow in some of those areas and not make it a hidden thing.

It allows other people to be human, too. And that doesn't mean we can't create and do great work together, as a matter of fact, I think we do better work. You did greater work when we're able to be who we are, fully human.

Definitely, I know that I'm in my current position, I've definitely been able to feel that, which is great, and especially in the world of fundraising, it's really hard not to be human, especially when you're dealing with such human issues such as justice and homelessness and heavy topics that not only require a lot of knowledge, but they wear down emotionally.

So you don't have that space to express yourself.

How are you supposed to survive?

Exactly. It makes it impossible to survive. 

Well, thank you so much for joining me on the show. I am very excited to share your knowledge with the world. And I appreciate you coming on. 

Thank you so much. Sabrina was a delight spending time with you. 

I've linked all of the resources that I've discussed in the show, including the right papers, collecting courage and link to Niko's organization, the empathy agency, in case you would like to get her assistance in creating a better workplace culture within your organization. And if you want to stay updated on Fundraising Superheroes, I would love for you to subscribe to us where you listen to your podcasts. Follow us on Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter and of course, leave a review if you can.

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By Sabrina Sciscente (RA) on May 5, 2021, 12:00 AM


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