Equity-Centered Ethical Storytelling with Beth Eisen of Playworks

In this episode of Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing, we round out our third episode in a series of conversations around ethical storytelling and its profound impact on digital marketing for health-related nonprofits. Our guest, Beth Eisen of Playworks, a passionate advocate for storytelling with an equity lens, shares insights into how compelling narratives can change hearts, minds, and behaviors. Join us as we explore the power of authentic storytelling and how it can be leveraged to support health causes without exploiting individuals or communities. We’ll discuss the intersection of development and marketing, the complexities of celebrity relationships with nonprofits, and the importance of building a strong team.

About the guest

Beth Eisen is a seasoned marketing and communications professional who has successfully raised awareness, engagement, and revenue for many organizations. She is currently the Head of Marketing and Communications at Playworks. Beth has over a decade of nonprofit experience and has also worked at a PR agency, for foreign governments and in the technology sector; she graduated Magna Cume Laude from Rutgers University. She’s passionate about equity, sports, traveling, and animals. If you find her on a Playworks playground, she’ll usually be playing kickball, foursquare, or soccer.


Contact Beth

Full Transcript

Intro 00:04

Welcome to Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing, a podcast for nonprofit marketers in the health space. Join us as we discuss how to use the web to drive awareness, engagement and action for health causes. This podcast is part of the thought education of Brooks digital, the web agency for health nonprofits. Now, here’s your host, Spencer Brooks.

Spencer Brooks 00:26

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing. My name is Spencer and today I’m joined by Beth Eisen. Beth is a seasoned marketing and communications professional who has successfully raised awareness, engagement and revenue for many organizations. She is currently the head of marketing and communications at Playworks, which is a nonprofit that helps kids to stay active and build valuable life skills through play. So, Beth, first of all, welcome on the show. We’re here today to talk about ethical storytelling, which is a very, is a popular topic. I know that we’ve touched on this previously on the show once or twice, I think, but I think it’s an important enough topic that I wanted to have you on, because I think you have a really interesting perspective. So, to kick things off, would you mind just sharing a bit more about your background, and why storytelling, I think specifically, ethical storytelling is such an important topic to you?

Beth Eisen 01:25

Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Spencer, ethical storytelling is a really important topic to me from my background in journalism and understanding the power dynamics that come into storytelling. And now working in the nonprofit space, really seeing how power dynamics and inequity are at play in conversations between funders and programs, and the people who benefit from the services of nonprofits, and making sure that every single person feels that they have dignity is such an important part of my role as a marketer. So, this is something that I’m very passionate about, because I believe that there are so many ways to tell a great story. And we have to do it in a way that respects and reflects the dignity of every single person.

Spencer Brook  02:18

Yeah. So, you mentioned power dynamics. And I’m curious if you have, if you could expand on that a little bit. Because actually, I think that’s a very interesting lens through which to look at ethical storytelling. So how in your either your past work as a journalist or your current work right now at Playworks, how have you seen power dynamics play out in the storytelling process?

Beth Eisen 02:38

Absolutely. So, in nonprofits, we typically have funders who we are bringing out to site visits where we are showcasing our program. And we’re trying to demonstrate to the funders; to individuals, to corporations, that their money matters to make an impact. And organizations can choose to do that in different ways. For example, early on in my career, there was a corporation that I worked with, that wanted to showcase that they were saving children, and the children that were benefiting from the programs didn’t need saving. They had great communities around them, they had incredible parents that love them very much. They were economically disadvantaged and racially diverse. And so a corporation choosing to want to tell that story is a power dynamic. And when you’re a nonprofit trying to get their money, you have to be really careful about that. So that’s what really spawned this desire to understand, unpack, and, like, redefine power dynamics, to make sure that everybody saw themselves in this story. But they saw themselves in it in a way that was genuine, authentic and accurate. So, for example, now I work with funders and telling their stories. And it’s all about being a part of the solution, being a piece of the puzzle, being in community and in collaboration with any of the people who are benefiting from our programs and making sure that the people who are benefiting from programs really see themselves as powerful characters and voices in their own stories, so that they can lead that storytelling.

Spencer Brooks 04:25

Yeah, I think it’s a good way to, I think set up the conversation as a whole because I think it’s such a common situation that people who are listening to this that you that other folks find themselves in. And so, I wanted to pause on that, because we’re gonna come back to ethical storytelling later on in this conversation. I wanted to take a moment to actually talk about the elements of storytelling themselves. I know that this is sort of packaged within the larger conversation of ethical storyteller. But when we were first talking, you, I felt like you had a really well defined, really interesting framework for this. And so would you mind sharing some of your thoughts on the components of a good story and why it’s important to understand those components when you’re crafting narratives?

Beth Eisen 05:20

Absolutely. So, storytelling has been around for 1000s of years, it helps develop pro social skills and helps people build connections. So many marketers have heard of the five WH model of telling a story, the who, what, where, when, why, how. But for nonprofits, there’s a different order. We tell stories focused on why first, trying to draw people in with a short emotional hook, often in the first like five to seven words or two seconds, and then on to the what, the so what, what can I do, and then into the details of the arc, the most effective stories are relatable and easy to remember, to repeat, to share with others. And for nonprofits, we often want to show stories that demonstrate small to scale. So for example, a health help nonprofit that’s demonstrating a human centered story that is about one particular person, you want to be able to show that that is repeatable and relatable and scalable so that there’s more trust built up in the narrative that your organization can do good and do that good consistently.

Spencer Brooks 06:32

And what do you think, makes nonprofit storytelling so different than other models? Because it sort of struck me as you’re, you’re talking there is the traditional model that you described, the five W’s four W’s, I can’t remember how many W’s now. But that traditional model, and then the nonprofit model that you outlined, and so why do you think that nonprofits need to approach storytelling differently?

Beth Eisen 07:05

We have to approach storytelling differently, because we have to appeal to emotion. When you’re doing fundraising or sales in a nonprofit, you’re convincing someone to give up their hard-earned money, for hope, for a feeling. And so, it’s really important to capture the heart first. And you have to do that quickly in the world that we live in. So, an example of why the why comes first, or how it works, I’ll explain is this story. So, I was working with a young girl, and she said, communicating with teachers felt impossible. That’s five words, that’s a hook. That’s the why I’m about to tell you the rest of the story, and you got a feeling out of it. For a little girl, it felt impossible. And so you can relate to it, you can see that that can be scaled over time, and different kids might feel that also. So, we have to start with a why to draw someone in and to make them feel connected to a human, to a mission in a really emotional way that might convince them to keep wanting to learn more, and to eventually really connect with the brand.

Spencer Brooks 08:24

Yeah, it’s right on the money. I think you’re totally right. And what another thing that occurred to me, as you’re talking is kind of this dual dynamic of needing to share a specific story, like you’re going to share the story of an individual, but needing it also to be scalable, right, you need to be able to, for people to see that that is representative of something that your larger organization can do, or it’s not just a one off. So how do you go about balancing that right? How do you go about sharing the specifics of one person’s story, and then also communicating to everyone who’s listening that, hey, this is actually representative of the impact that we can provide, and that we can create for many, many others.

Beth Eisen 09:17

Yeah, so going from small to scale is definitely an art when we are telling stories that Playworks. And we start with that human centered lens most often telling the individual story. It’s our goal to get to scale quickly. So, the story might be something like Michael hid under a bench and he was too scared to play. And another kid came over to him, gave him a high five and invited him onto the playground. That’s happening on our playgrounds every day across the country. So just very quickly, making a transition to what scale looks like in a way that anyone can understand. For Playworks it’s also, we’re able to tell that story over time, where we’ve been around for 27 years, we’ve you’ve been able to tell that story over space, we work in all 50 states, we’ve been able to tell that story in smaller scales and at individual school districts, for example. So being able to determine who we are trying to connect this to, what level of scale they care about, or might connect with, and making sure that whatever that small to scale is, someone might be able to see in their own life or relate to themselves, like maybe someone else has a shy kid. And they’re relating it back to their own kids, whether or not that’s related to the scale you’re setting. So try to make your stories relatable and scalable, so that even if someone intellectually doesn’t necessarily care about the level of scale, they emotionally care about the relatability, as well.

Spencer Brooks 10:56

Perhaps as a related question to this, I’m also curious how you fit these stories into the overall narrative of the organization, because I’m assuming that, you know, these are all again, individual stories that are contributing to something larger at scale. And so, I think that many folks are trying to communicate a specific narrative, a specific overall message. So how do you go about choosing and communicating stories and making sure they fit within that overall narrative?

Spencer Brooks 11:25

Yeah. Have there been times where you’ve gone and sort of allowed the story to unfold, right, not necessarily gone in with an agenda, but gone in and said, Okay, we’re just going to explore like you’ve been talking about, have there been times that the story that you found has surprised you or actually turned out better than you thought?

Beth Eisen 11:25

Yeah, so there are two different ways that we collect stories within my organization. One way that we collect stories is to actually go out and look for a story with a specific theme or topic like leadership, or equity, or mental health, for example, or physical health. And we’ll seek out stories where we already know what the outcome is. And we’re going to ask some quality questions to get to that outcome, or to showcase that story. More often, we have the freedom and flexibility to uncover the story, to pick a human, to pick a small group of humans and have a conversation. And it’s been really important for us to diversify the voices of the people that we are talking to, to capture those stories. So, we’ll listen to our staff, kids, principals, teachers, in their own voices, letting them guide a conversation to find the story. And everybody has a story. And all of their stories matter to us. And we are never going to predict who’s able to relate to any other individual story. So, we can have five to six to seven conversations, not knowing where it’s going to go, and then figure out how to package it later to fit into what we think our brand needs for each particular audience. We’re talking to so many different audiences. And our products are people like we offer, you know, we’re an organization that’s a service based organization, with like complex humans delivering curriculum and training to other complex humans. And so, you can never quite predict who’s gonna relate to what angle or narrative of a story. So as much as we can put together our content calendars and go out and seek the stories we want. We’ve actually found incredible success with finding the people and figuring out the stories as they come out organically. And that has helped us have our organization’s narrative truly be reflective of what is happening in the market today. What is happening to people today being really reflective of the times and experiences of the people in our communities.

Beth Eisen 14:01

Absolutely. I can think of it so many times because everybody has an incredible story. I remember interviewing a young girl named Jenny, who was based in Maryland, and Jenny was so shy in the beginning of the conversation, she could barely speak to me. And we just sat down and I had a video camera going and we just kept talking. We played a little game. She started to feel comfortable. By the end of the interview, she was talking to me in English and in Spanish, all about how she was so scared in the beginning of school that she like couldn’t connect to her teacher, she couldn’t connect to her classmates and through play, just like I did with her in that interview, she was able to come out of her shell. And when she saw other adults and kids like laughing or getting silly or giving out high fives, she was able to high five them back and say thanks, or good job. And that was the moment of confidence that she got. And that like that interview experience and that conversation with a child, like a fourth grader, was really powerful to demonstrate that you have to be patient for the story, you have to make your interview partner comfortable, you have to let them settle into a conversation and trust you with their story. So, by playing a game with her, by letting her have some time with me, we built up trust. And if I want to be able to tell her story, I want her to trust me with her story. And so that was a really powerful moment where I had no idea if I was even going to get her to be able to like, say five words. And I got her to tell me about building confidence through the power of play.

Spencer Brooks 15:59

Yeah, it does strike me that, you know, going back to what you were talking about earlier with the idea of power dynamics and ethical storytelling, right? The contrast between, say a corporation that goes in and decides we want the narrative to be that we’re saving, you know, this child or community or whatever. And so we’re going to go in, and we’re going to get a story through this lens, versus what you’ve described, which is going in with patience, with trust, with an openness to allow whoever it is to be able to share their story, first of all, how much more equitable that is. And then secondly, icing on the cake, it’s actually a better story. Because it’s, it’s meaningful and authentic. And so I’m really glad that you shared that because it just seems like from my perspective, that it’s not like, oh, we have to sacrifice the quality of a story or the meaningfulness or the impact so that this can be ethical, it actually seems like by taking this more equitable, ethical approach, you’re actually also going to get better stories. Would you say that’s true? Or do you have a different perspective?

Beth Eisen 17:12

I mean, I absolutely think that’s true. And sometimes having the time to be able to build trust is something that not every person gathering a story has, sometimes the space or the pressure or other things get to you. So, I think that what’s really critical for any storyteller, any marketer, any communicator to understand is that like, there is also a power dynamic between the storyteller and the subject of the story. And we have to pay attention to our own perspective as storytellers as well. So just like a corporation could be having a thought of how they want to portray a story and going in so too could anybody in any conversation, even if you don’t know where you’re gonna go, the follow up questions you ask what you want to take out of it, and then eventually how you package that story. So whenever we think about ethical storytelling, dignity should drive decision making, we want to make sure the dignity of all parties involved continues to exist. And so, some of the things that I like to do to check for power dynamics, is to ask myself a lot of questions. Why did I like that angle or hook? What does that say about the community? Why am I telling this particular story? Who am I telling it to? And how might they receive it? Will they be able to make any assumptions based on what I’m doing? Or how I’m portraying the story or the follow up questions I’m asking that might have unintended consequences, or negatively reflect upon the characters, the communities within the story? And like, what does the story say about the person, organization, situation or the times in which we live like, am I trying to portray something a certain way? And so, checking myself for that, and understanding the context of what is happening in the world, how it might be received now or in the future is all a part of this bigger puzzle of ethical storytelling. So, we want to make sure that no matter who the power player is, whether it’s a funder, or you as the storyteller, that your output of what that story is, demonstrates a reflection of truth. And if you’re telling a human story, like it’s always best to see yourself as the person showcasing their truth. And so, we can’t take credit we can’t blame. We have to just showcase truth. And the way to do that is to build trust and to own that, like you have to have the utmost respect and how you craft and showcase their story because they trust in you.

Spencer Brooks 20:00

Wow. Yeah, it’s really fantastic advice. I love it. I have some more specific questions for you just about some of the details of you know how you’re doing storytelling at Playworks. But before we move on to that, Beth are there are there any other thoughts or details, pieces of advice, things to avoid about ethical storytelling that I, you haven’t shared or haven’t asked you about?

Beth Eisen 20:21

I think that credit is another thing that we just need to be mindful of. So, any situation that’s around like, the health nonprofit space, 99% of problems are not solved in isolation. And so as much as everybody wants to take credit for solving something, or being in charge of somebody’s recovery, health, support, strength, we need to also make sure that we see ourselves as a piece of this bigger puzzle, a part of a community of support, a reflection as one part of an experience, when we’re mindful not to take credit for the experience, it continues to put power into the hands of the subject of the story, that maybe the person, their family, their community, other organizations also contributed to that positive outcome. So, I would just say, be really mindful of taking full credit for something when you’re a piece of the puzzle, it’s really easy to do as a nonprofit, because you’re trying to tell your story quickly and effectively for audiences that give you nine seconds on video or 3 seconds on email. But to be authentic, and to do that, with grace builds way more trust with your audience in the long run.

Spencer Brooks 21:43

Yeah. Another sage piece of advice there. I really love that, Beth I wanted to ask you about kind of moving into like mediums for capturing and sharing stories, right? There’s obviously a lot of different ways that you could do that images, video, audio, written forms, all those things. So could you explain a bit more about the significance of choosing the right medium for a story, and any factors that you think should go into making that decision?

Beth Eisen 22:12

So, whenever I think about making those decisions, the first question I ask myself is, what do I want people to do, think, or feel? And what is the subject of the story most comfortable with? And what resources do I have? Because those things will guide what will help tell the story in the most authentic way. If the subject, for example, is very camera shy, that becomes an audio story. If the subject is perfectly happy to be on any medium, I will always recommend going video first, it gives you the most versatility to grab still shots, audio snippets, transcribe quotes, and grab like clips later to use in many different ways. But the medium for how you eventually display it, you have to also take into account how is the audience going to receive it? And the question that I asked myself there is what is the most emotionally compelling in that instant? So, it depends on the medium and channel and timing. But it’s all about what do you want someone to do, think or feel and which medium is going to help them get there?

Spencer Brooks 23:20

Yeah, it’s so when you’re doing that, obviously, obviously, you’re considering the subject in that right? To choose the right medium in order to capture their story. And then when you’re going out and then sharing it, are you doing anything? Or how are you approaching being able to tailor those stories to your different audiences or channels, because obviously, you know, I know that many nonprofits have more than one audience, especially in the health space, where they’re, they’re talking to, you know, not only the people that they’re helping, but you know, also could be caregivers, it could be legislative bodies, or regulatory bodies or health care professional, there’s just the list goes on, right? And so then multiplied across all of the various channels that these folks are on. So how do you go about then thinking about disseminating those stories on all the different channels to hit the right person at the right time? You have any thoughts on that?

Beth Eisen 24:22

Yeah, absolutely. So, there’s a million ways to frame any story. And so as long as you have permission to frame stories in certain ways, from the subjects, like check with your subjects to make sure that they’re comfortable with it, then what I typically do with my team is we will save like a video clip of the story and have a written synopsis of the story. And at launch of whenever we’re doing something with the story for whatever purpose we’re using it for first, we’ll have something like web, email, you know, social, for whatever audience we’re thinking of, and that’s like one packaging, and then we keep it in our story bank. So, when we’re looking for stories to repackage in other ways, we have it ready to go. So, for example, I captured a story recently that was about a girl who was a fourth grader in our program 10 years ago. And now she is an AmeriCorp coach working on our playgrounds doing the same position, that one’s inspiring her as a fourth grader. So that’s true type of story for us, is actually really great for fundraising, because it shows impact. So that will go in our end of the year appeal across all of our channels. That story is really great for school sales, because, the sales of our services because it actually shows how much the program worked and was proof of concept because she built the confidence to become the great educator she is today. And it works for recruitment of future coaches and staff and goes into, you know, all of those channels and that packaging, because she was able to eventually come and work for us with all of the confidence and skills that she brings. So, whenever we capture this story, we’re hoping that it will fit multiple arenas and multiple times within our content calendar. But really just making sure that we have it organized so that we can package and repackage across audiences is very important, and not every story has, you know, that many legs or that long of legs, but it’s whenever you find those gems, it is very much okay to share stories in different framings, over time, and to share them across audiences differently, with different intros, outros, and nuances of the story, as long as it’s still capturing their truth responsibly.

Spencer Brooks 26:55

Absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s really good advice. Especially, you know, the practical stuff really matters. And especially if you’re going to do all the work to capture a great story, I think it just makes sense that that you’re able to utilize that as an asset. And it’s also something to save time, right? Like, I don’t need to remind, I feel like I talked about this on every single episode, but capacity, right, like everyone’s wearing multiple hats. And so, you know that that kind of stuff, I think is very helpful for folks. I did want to move into some of the questions I like to ask every single guest who comes on the show. And the first question is just what’s one thing in digital you’re working on right now that consumes a lot of your brain space? And what takeaways can you share with listeners who might encounter that same challenge?

Beth Eisen 27:44

Yeah, like many listeners out there, I’m really focused on learning more about and experimenting with like the integration of AI into marketing, my team and I have learned a lot from like tool to tool about the future of AI and where it’s going. But I work as such a like human centered non profit mission. And so it’s interesting to think about how the integration of like chat GPT or AI into tools like Canva are going to impact the authenticity of storytelling moving forward, especially as it relates to equity as some of these tools, and the AI integrations that are built into them have already been shown to be inequitable, as they are built by humans who are complex. So right now, for most AI tools, a human check for equity is still largely needed across the board with questions like are the right voices centered? Are there unintended consequences of using this? And I think that as AI evolves, so too will marketers, and so too, will this double check on equity. And so it’s something I’m definitely spending some brain space on and wrestling with. And I don’t have all the answers yet. But it’s something that I think as marketers we all need to be paying attention to.

Spencer Brooks 27:44

I really do agree. Yeah, it’s a hot topic. And actually, we do have I think in in about a month from when I’m recording this now we’re going to we’re going to record an episode on AI and do it. So, if you’re listening to this, stay tuned, because we are going to talk about this, I promise. But Beth, I also wanted to ask you what are two or three resources you regularly use to keep up on news and trends in your work?

Beth Eisen 29:25

I like to sit on marketing cohorts or collaborative like groups of like-minded organizations who are in the space and are passionate about this type of work to just like, listen to the words that they’re using to like see if we’re hearing the same thing from our constituents and to see if our results qualitatively or quantitatively are aligned. I also really like looking at news sources like Education Week and the Chronicles of Philanthropy and tool specific sources like the blogs from HubSpot and Marketo.

Spencer Brooks 29:55

Love it. Really great resources there. And so, the last question, final question I have for you, Beth, is just how can listeners get in touch with you if they’d like to learn more about your work?

Beth Eisen 30:05

Yes. If you’d like to learn more about my work, you can reach out to info@playworks.org. And you can reach out to me on LinkedIn, Beth Eisen.

Spencer Brooks 30:15

That is wonderful. Well, that wraps up our show for today. If you’re listening to this and you liked the episode, please consider as always rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you’re listening on. This show is also part of the thought leadership of Brooks digital. We’re a web design and Development Agency for Health nonprofits. So if you like this podcast, feel free to check out our website. It’s Brooks.digital, and you can find more of our insights and learn about our work. But with all that said, Beth, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Beth Eisen 30:49

Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Intro 30:56

Thanks for listening to help nonprofit digital marketing. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform. And don’t forget to check out the Brooks digital website at www.Brooks.digital where you can find other resources like this podcast. Learn how we help nonprofits like yours and get in touch with our team. See you in the next episode.

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