Episode aired May 20, 2020: Nonprofit Storytelling

Miriam Brosseau is a talented and expert storyteller. Whether via video, direct mail or email, Miriam knows how a nonprofit can show their footprint and demonstrate real change. In this episode, Miriam discusses 

  • the role stories play in fundraising success
  • her M-A-K-E-R method for telling impactful stories
  • direct mail vs. video
  • taking a peek into smaller stories and
  • her roller rink fantasy!

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. Today I am really happy to have with me a friend, a really smart and creative person, Miriam Brosseau, as my guest. Miriam, how you doing today?

Miriam: Hey, I am rockin and rollin, happy to be here.

Ephraim: Rock and rollin, along with the decor in the back. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. A proud Wisconsin native, Miriam was raised with three important truths: 1) There are no mistakes in art 2) You should always question the narrator and 3) If it’s on a stick, it must be food. She has spent the past 12 years working in and with nonprofits, always at the intersection of community, technology and storytelling. For three years she ran the Jewish TED style speaker series ELI Talks, resulting in over a million minutes watched and  a Telly Award. In her role as Chief Innovation Officer at C3 Communications, Miriam developed, ran and evaluated a professional development program in brand aligned storytelling for Make-a-Wish America and its local chapters. Today her consultancy Tiny Windows helps mission driven leaders through developing communication strategies, coaching, producing video content and teaching a regular course on storytelling for social good.

In today’s episode we’ll discuss the centrality of storytelling to well… everything nonprofit related. So let’s dive right in. Miriam, what role does storytelling play in fundraising success?

Miriam: Amazing. Your stories are your impact, your stories are the change that you make, the stories that you tell are emblematic of that bigger vision that you have for the world. And so when you zero in on those little stories of what changed, what happened from the time that you entered the scene to the time that you, you know, left your footprint, that is the impact that you’re making in the world. And so it’s a digestible human window into the world that you are trying to create and the role that your supporters can play in that.

Ephraim: Fantastic. So let’s talk about an actionable item that people can do. A nonprofit right now is working on a story to send out to their donors and supporters. What three to five things must be included in that story in order for it to prove effective?

Miriam: Awesome. So first of all there has to be a change, right? If nothing changes from the beginning to the end, it’s not a story. It’s a report. And also I have a helpful mnemonic that I’ve been using with some clients, to think about the stories that they’re telling and it’s MAKER. Each of those letters stands for a different thing to be conscious of.

First is M, matter. Does your story matter to your mission? Does it matter to the people that you’re talking to? Does it matter in the bigger context of what’s happening in the world right now?

A is for actionable. Is there something that your supporters can do with this story, whether it’s to pass it on to a friend or whether it’s to click donate or whatever the action might be? What do they do with that content once they have it?

K is for kosher, which is fit for use basically. Have you created this story in a way that is…are you telling the story in a way that this person would want the story told about themselves? Have you been…have you adhered to your organization’s values? Are you sharing it in a way that makes you proud and makes the person that the story is about proud?

E is for emotional. We are fundamentally emotional beings. We decide with our hearts before our heads and so the stories that show emotion, evoke emotion. So show me the emotion in the story!

R is for readable. Basically, is it appropriate for whatever the medium is that you’re sharing it in- which is different for direct mail, from video, from Facebook, from Twitter, from Instagram, whatever it might be? Is it appropriate to the platform and have you crossed your i’s and dotted your t’s and all of that good stuff? Is it ready to go? So MAKER is a helpful little mnemonic to think through as you’re putting together your stories.

Ephraim: I love, love. That’s easy to remember and covers all the bases from a storytelling perspective. What are the advantages of a direct mail piece over video and vice versa?

Miriam: Yeah, I think… well, the power of video right now is that you know so much of Internet bandwidth is just taken up by video content and we’re more and more stopping to engage and just sort of fall into that universe that’s in front of us. But there is also that that sense of overload, as much as video can be this really emotional engaging enthralling beautiful content, it’s also easy to just get lost in the mix of it and I think there’s something really special about being able to share an emotional, evocative story in a direct mail piece that I can hold in my hands. Something that becomes a memento of my relationship with this organization, of my connection to this mission and it can feel much more personal and personalized and all of that.

And so I think every story that you have can be told in a variety of media, in really powerful ways but you kind of just want to take a moment to put yourself in that donors or in that supporters shoes and think about what is the reaction that I’m going for? What is my supporter going to do with this, with this memento really, after they’ve experienced whether it’s a video or whether it’s direct mail piece or whatever that might be.

Ephraim: Excellent. Your agency tagline is “Ask bigger questions, tell smaller stories.” How do you define smaller stories?  

Miriam: Smaller stories I consider to be those little human moments that are emblematic of your bigger mission and values and essentially who you are as an organization and the change you’re trying to make in the world. I actually… I named my consultancy Tiny Windows because at a previous position, I started referring to our blog as a series of tiny windows into who we are and what we do. The idea is to frame kind of… it’s just to frame that content in a way that is surprising, is inviting and makes people want to sort of peek in and get a sense of what that bigger picture is. And so I think getting at the… we have a tendency to share those big metrics, these overall sort of success stories which is…which is huge and really important but the way that you can drill down into what are those little human moments of transformation, those little times of change and emotional investment and in sites that bring our missions alive, that’s what people can really connect to. That’s what we can wrap our heads around and say oh well, now that I look at those bigger numbers, now that I look at that bigger impact, I really understand what it means on a human level.

Ephraim: Got it. So I’ve always loved the name Tiny Windows and now I know what’s behind it! So thank you very much. Makes me want to peek in. There are organizations with multiple locations, which means lots of program staff and volunteers and a potential treasure trove of stories. How should the head office go about collecting those stories, so they can find the right one when they need it?

Miriam: Yeah, I think something… a huge opportunity that a lot of nonprofits have… that not all of them are necessarily taking advantage of, is just the idea of considering who’s the hero of that story, of sort of centering different people in that narrative. And so I think a good exercise for organizations to do is just to think through who are the characters in your story, who are all of the types of people who are absolutely essential to making your impact possible and just list them out. And then you can fill in a kind of Mad Lib of… you know, because you take this action, because you do this thing, because you invest in this way, this is what happens. And don’t mention the name of your organization. Just because you do this, this happens. This is the impact that you make, this is the role that you play in that bigger… in that bigger mission, in that bigger story.

And then when you look through that list, you can think through: Okay, well what’s most urgent? What’s most important? Where are the people that I really want to engage and deepen that connection with the organization? And where are the people who are more sort of aspirational? Who do I still need to reach that isn’t on this list? So I think first of all just acknowledging that you have this huge cast of characters to work from and then doing that exercise of understanding what their role is in that story and in making that mission possible and then kind of narrowing back down to and then where should we put our focus.

Ephraim: Fantastic, you had me at Mad Libs. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about Miriam. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Miriam: I think like a lot of folks I sort of fell into it. I wanted to do something that was… I actually went to UW-Madison and in my undergrad I studied all kinds of things, but mostly Jewish studies. I kind of thought I was gonna be a rabbi for awhile. But I realized that my interest was really in building community, in communication in particular. I loved studying Jewish texts and kind of the way that they connect with one another and connects people to their tradition and to each other. And so I found a role that spoke to that in the contemporary world and just absolutely fell in love.

Ephraim: Fantastic. If there was one thing in the nonprofit sector that you could shake up, what would it be?

Miriam: Oh, I think… gosh, I think that the first thing that comes to mind is it’s easy to get caught in scarcity mentality and this, you know, we’re always short on resources, on staff, on time. Like there’s always going to be too little for all the big dreams that we have. And I think the more we can attune ourselves and get comfortable with thinking big and thinking in terms of abundance, you can always make a dream smaller. But I think the more that we keep dreaming big and go beyond what we think is possible, the more that we’re actually really gonna be able to accomplish.

Ephraim: Excellent. What’s the favorite book from your childhood?  

Miriam: You know, there’s this really wackadoodle book called Skydance that is just… you’ve never heard of it because there’s no reason that you’ve ever heard of it. It’s just this bizarre collection of kooky, spacey looking, collage-y drawings and this.. this very trippy story about these creatures asking one another to dance and it’s not a narrative in any way. But it’s really… it’s got a lot of emotion, it’s really evocative of and… my parents are total hippies and it just gives me… it makes me smile to think about it.

Ephraim: If it makes you smile, then it’s all good. Why do you fantasize about one day opening a roller rink?

Miriam: Because the world needs more roller rinks! Oh my gosh, maybe I just need to open a nonprofit to advocate on behalf of roller rinks. But from the moment when I started taking skating lessons when I was 5 years old and was a competitive roller dancer until I was 17 and at the same time I was also learning to do like the role bounce, a little bow-wow, kind of JB roller skating… like the jam skating that we called it back at Skate Town and Racine, Wisconsin. And it just brings me so much joy and it brings people together and the world needs more places like that where everybody is equal and we can just have fun and express ourselves together and listen to some awesome hip-hop and just jam out, you know? You’ll have to come to my rink.

Ephraim: Well for sure because I love your passion for this idea. I could see it’s gonna happen. This is not like a fantasy, this is gonna happen one day. Last question in this round: Which family member inspires you and why?

Miriam: Which of my family inspires me? That’s not fair. I’m blessed to be in an amazingly inspiring… I mean right now I would say that my husband Alan is a huge inspiration. We work with singer-songwriters and he has been working on some amazing stuff recently. And he’s also a stay-at-home dad and taking care of our kids and you know… his level of commitment to our family and to his music and to our community is… he’s my rock and I hope everybody has somebody like that in their lives, because it just… it makes all the difference.

Ephraim: If he’s listening in or if he hears this later on, he’ll send over his thank you. Last question: We’re turning the tables. You get to ask me a surprise question that I don’t know about, so go ahead.

Miriam: Oh, this is so juicy. I’m gonna go with, so who… what actor would you like to play in the story of your life?

Ephraim: What actor would I… Wow, okay I can’t even… well would have to be…

Miriam: Play you.  

Ephraim: Play me. So it would have to be somebody from the 80s for sure, because that’s where I identify culturally and well pretty much everything else. I’m just trying to think of what actor… It isn’t gonna be Tom Cruise, I can tell you that for sure. It isn’t gonna… Well, you know, John Candy. I’m gonna go with John Candy and I gotta tell you why: Number one, funny as hell. Number two, I just loved… I love the movies he was in and the roles he played. And number three, there was something that nobody knew about John Candy until way like towards the end of the 90s early 2000s: In the 1990s, his movies in the 80s and 90s did okay at the box office. But in video, he was the number one selling actor on video for years running.

Miriam: What?    

Ephraim: Yes, John Candy movies. That’s right. So I’m thinking of all the movies I’ve seen him in and I’m thinking okay, John Candy, that’s the guy. If I’m gonna have somebody… he’s funny. I remember him from SCTV because I was in Toronto so I know his background. Yes, John Candy. There we go.

Miriam: Yes, I love that! He is one of the biggest hearted comedians ever that was on the face of the planet and you know… I think his… I think his passion and his love for humanity, like that… that’s all you Ephraim.

Ephraim: I love it. I appreciate it. I will say thank you to you. Your passion for storytelling definitely comes through with this and I invite everybody to check out your website at Tiny Windows and get in touch with Miriam because she is a master storyteller. Miriam, thanks so much for joining me. Have a wonderful day.

Miriam: Thank you, such a pleasure. You too. Take care.

Ephraim: Okay, be well. Bye.