Ethical Storytelling with MaryBeth Meyer of Pinky Swear Foundation
In this episode of the Health Nonprofit Digital Marketing podcast, host Spencer Brooks engages in a candid conversation with MaryBeth Meyer, Director of Marketing at the Pinky Swear Foundation. MaryBeth shares her unique journey from being a recipient of Pinky Swear Foundation’s programs to becoming a part of their staff.
This episode delves deep into the ethical aspects of storytelling in nonprofits, focusing on how organizations can authentically share their impact without exploiting the families they serve. MaryBeth provides valuable insights into the importance of matching marketing demographics with program demographics and the power of permission-based storytelling in fundraising efforts.
About the guest
MaryBeth Meyer serves as the Director of Marketing at Pinky Swear Foundation, a non-profit that offers financial and emotional support to children with cancer and their families.
Before joining Pinky Swear Foundation, MaryBeth held positions at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines and Walnut Creek Church. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Windsor Heights Chamber of Commerce.
MaryBeth’s most significant roles include being a partner to her husband, Chris, and a mother to Addison, Owen, and James.
- Pinky Swear website: www.pinkyswear.org
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marybethmeyer4/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/meyer.marybeth/
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 books 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 MaryBeth Meyer. MaryBeth serves as the Director of Marketing at Pinky Swear Foundation, a nonprofit that offers financial and emotional support to children with cancer and their families. So MaryBeth, first of all, thanks so much for coming on the show today. We’re here today to discuss ethical storytelling, which is a highly requested topic. In fact, actually, over the coming months, we have a couple episodes, I think that we’re dedicating to this topic. But MaryBeth, I actually think that you’re the perfect person to kick us off because you have a remarkable journey. Transitioning from, as I understand it, a recipient of Pinky Swear Foundation’s programs to now being the director of marketing. So could you just start by sharing the emotional and practical challenges you faced during that journey and how it shaped your perspective on nonprofit storytelling?
MaryBeth Meyer 01:22
Yeah, in 2018, my youngest son was diagnosed with cancer. Prior to that, I was working in another nonprofit space. And I got to experience firsthand how families lives are turned completely upside down when they hear those terrible, terrible words that your child has cancer. For us, we were financially stable, we had two incomes, and when our youngest was diagnosed, everything changed. And we had to go to a hospital that was two hours away from our home. So, every appointment, every lab, every procedure, it was at a minimum of four hour trip for our family, and that put a huge financial strain on us. And at the time that he was diagnosed, I wasn’t well versed in the different nonprofits that were serving kids with cancer. And when our social worker told us the services that were available to us, you know, there weren’t a lot of organizations that were helping with the practical, everyday needs. And I never thought that my family would be on the receiving end of nonprofit work, I thought, you know, I was destined to be in nonprofit and support others and do good. But when this challenge entered my own family, it really flipped my perspective and changed my perspective. And we were the recipients. Just two weeks after my son was diagnosed with cancer, our HVAC system failed. And we were even more just strapped financially. You know, we were paying off bills that were rolling in from the ambulance ride, and those initial tests and his first chemotherapy appointments, and to all of a sudden have a huge household expense, like an HVAC system was crippling. And so, we reached out to our social worker. And again, they said, you know, there’s just not that many organizations that can help with things like this. But why don’t you try to reach out to the Pinky Swear Foundation. And so, I did a little bit of research, and I reached out to them via their website. And they were able to help our family with our gas and our groceries and a mortgage payment, which allowed us to breathe just a little bit easier with everything else that our family was dealing with. And so that experience really shaped the way that I viewed nonprofit support. And obviously, I experienced firsthand what Pinky Swear Foundation does. And after that, I volunteered to start sharing our story with the organization, I shared kind of our journey while my son was still in treatment. And then after my son finished treatment, I should also say my son is now cancer free. I always forget to include that. But when a job opened up with Pinky Swear foundation, I jumped at the opportunity to join their team and give back to an organization that helped our family during some of the hardest times in our life.
Spencer Brooks 04:46
That is, it’s first of all a very inspiring story. And I think, you know, for listeners, hopefully it’s obvious why I wanted MaryBeth on the show because I know that that personal experience that you have Marybeth is, as I’m sure it lends you a unique perspective on, now in the position of being a director of marketing, communications and having to go in and get people’s stories and share people’s stories, knowing what it’s like in that position, I will assume at least has given you a lot more empathy for people. So, did you find that that experience really changed your mind or reshaped how you viewed the process of getting people’s stories?
MaryBeth Meyer 05:34
Yeah, it definitely changed my perspective. I mean, we were helped by several nonprofits during my son’s battle with cancer. There’s no, there’s not one nonprofit out there that can help these families in a fully comprehensive way. I mean, it takes a lot of nonprofits working together to support these families from everything like basic needs to research to travel to, you know, the best medical technology, and treatment options available. And so, I started to see the curtain opening in front of my eyes of wow, it’s not just one nonprofit that’s doing this. It’s a lot of nonprofits working together. And of course, Pinky Swear wasn’t the only nonprofit that asked for our story. And I can honestly say that there were some organizations that did it in a better way than others. And that really shaped the way that I have set up our organization to gather stories from other families now, because it never feels good to be asked for a story in kind of a, what’s the right word, I owe you way, like, we need something for you. Pinky Swear never made me feel like I owe them anything. They really, in their programming, they gave without the expectation that I needed to do anything in return. And so, at the basic, basic level, I think nonprofits owe it to their families that they serve, or their communities that they serve in truly, truly being generous and not expecting or demanding that anybody gives anything back to them. So that’s our general posture at Pinky Swear that we don’t expect anything in return.
Spencer Brooks 07:26
It’s a very, very good point. And it occurs to me as just listening to you that there’s probably a lot of ways that nonprofits who are in the position of providing support may not realize how they they’re coming across, or maybe not even having an understanding of Oh, yeah, actually, maybe there are other nonprofits who are also providing support. So, are there any other things that you encountered or that you wished that nonprofits would understand about the experience of someone who is receiving support? And maybe wait other ways? And it’s okay if you don’t, but are there any other ways that you feel like nonprofits could do a better job at providing support? Or are there things that they don’t understand?
MaryBeth Meyer 08:12
I think realizing, in general, that families are sharing their stories as a way to give back, this is the way that they’re able to be generous, and to say, thank you. But also keep in mind, especially in the realm of childhood cancer, these families, including myself, they’re reliving the trauma. Every time they share their story, they’re going back to diagnosis day, they’re going back to their child battling cancer in, especially in the childhood cancer space, the outcomes not always great. And I will say firsthand, I’ve had to do a lot of work myself in setting boundaries for how many times I share our story, and what level of depth that I’m willing to share our stories at. And so, I would just encourage other nonprofits, especially when dealing with children, it’s a very sensitive balance, you want to good story, you want to share impact. But remember, to have compassion, these families have gone through a lot. And that’s one of our core values at Pinky Swear, our values are compassion, collaboration, and celebration. And so we try to really keep those values front of mind when we’re working with families and the driving force is that compassion.
Spencer Brooks 09:31
Could you share a little bit more about that kind of how you are aligning your storytelling with some of those values that you mentioned? I know you kind of touched on this a little bit with what you mentioned before about a generous approach. But I know that you know, that can be a challenge for folks is to be able to respect families and then align the stories with the mission and values of the organization and do this all in a way that isn’t causing harm. So, could you expand a little bit on how you how you handle the storytelling component within those values?
MaryBeth Meyer 10:07
Yeah. So, with just the basic setup of how we gather content from our families, we never blanket reach out to all of our families and say, hey, I want to share your story. We allow families to raise their hands, whether digitally or face to face and say, I want to give back to Pinky Swear by sharing our story. So that’s just a process that our organization does. And so, we really try to allow families to raise their hand and volunteer to share their stories rather than always reaching out to them. And we know that families, through experience, are being reached out to from the hospitals that they were at, the Ronald McDonald Houses that they were staying at, the many nonprofits that are doing things for their families. And so, we want to be sensitive to that. So we asked families, once they have raised their hand saying that they want to participate with us, we really allow them to opt in to how they want to share their story, sometimes they just want to share an anonymous Thank you, sometimes they want to send in a video, sometimes they want to send in photos and other times they don’t want to and so we really allow families to drive the content that they want to send in. We also work with many other nonprofits. And so, if we know one of our families is being featured at the nonprofit down the street, we’re sensitive to that we know that families are busy and especially if their child is in active treatment, they don’t need one more thing to worry about. They don’t need another thing on their plate. And so we respect their right and their schedules to work with other nonprofits. From time to time, we will share content so that families aren’t having to rerecord for multiple nonprofits in multiple different campaigns and events. And then my favorite is that we celebrate with families, when families send us an update, maybe their child just finished treatment, or maybe their child got out of the hospital after a really long hospital stay. We have a culture at Pinky Swear of celebrating. And so, we actually have a bell in our office that we ring. Anytime a family sends us a really great update. Again, we always ask for permission if we can share that internally or externally. But we are so blessed by families when they choose to share those exciting updates with us.
Spencer Brooks 12:52
So then, on the flip side, how do you handle situations where maybe the news isn’t so good? I absolutely love the idea of celebrating, by the way, but it got me thinking about those stories or those updates where something hasn’t gone? Well. I’m thinking of things like a child dies, horrible, horrible, right? But I’m sure these things happen. I know that other people who are working in other issue areas like mental health, right? Suicide, there’s some there’s some pretty tough stuff that’s out there. And so how do you handle telling stories in a situation when the family is going through a significant loss? And what advice could you share with people who might be in a similar situation in in collecting and working with families like that.
MaryBeth Meyer 13:46
That’s the unfortunate reality of childhood cancer. Not every story has a happy ending. And a lot of times the long-term effects even when a child does get to remission or does get cured. Life is hard for a long time for these families. And so again, going back to our culture, we have a culture that wants to acknowledge the really, really hard things that happen in the childhood cancer space. And so every Tuesday, during our staff meeting, we have a section of our staff meeting that’s devoted to what we call all-star updates. And it’s a chance for our program team to share some of these really, really heavy things. And unfortunately, most weeks, we are hearing about a child who has passed away from childhood cancer. And we make time for that we make it a priority at our organization to say their name, to share their story. We don’t do this in a public way. But as a team, we really prioritize acknowledging these families worst nightmares, and the hardest thing of losing a child. And we take some time to discuss the, we call our children and their families all-stars, and we say their name. And then we turn off our cameras and we light a candle for them. We send the family, a card that also has a candle on it. And we just save space for the hard things. And that has been very healthy for our team. It’s been really healthy for our families, because there’s unfortunately no way to get around the reality that childhood cancer is devastating.
Spencer Brooks 15:37
Yeah, you keep coming back to something that I think is worth calling out here. And that’s the culture of the organization around this right? What I’m picking up on, you can correct me if I’m wrong is this is that the culture of the organization actually lives out, in a way some of a small part of the emotional experience that the family is going through, right, where you’re acknowledging the gravity of this situations, you’re celebrating with families. And it sounds like along the way, really developing empathy. And I could see how that might transition that outward into your interactions with the families themselves, right? If you’re not coming from a position of detachment, saying, I’ve just got to get X, Y, and Z from you, because I’ve got to put out this campaign or, you know, we got to go fundraise, or all these things. Would you mind speaking a little bit more on the aspects of culture and sort of how that influences your interactions with families?
Yeah, and I think this is one aspect that my lived experience has really played a part in this. You know, I think every staff member at Pinky Swear Foundation has had a connection to cancer, we have a lot of people who have battled cancer themselves, and whether they have a childhood cancer experience or not, I think all of us have done the hard work to examine, why are we here? Why do we choose to work in an area that is extremely difficult, extremely sad. And I think every team member truly wants to make a difference in the lives of kids with cancer. Even if they haven’t had a direct family member or connection to childhood cancer, I think I it’s safe to say that the entire population probably has a connection to cancer in general. And we’ve really done a lot of hard thinking about, okay, cancer in general is hard. Now, think about it when a child is battling this. Think about the implications it has on families think about how difficult and how hopeless it feels. And so, we’ve done that really hard, heart work, to be able to have empathy for our families. And I think some things changed when I joined the staff. And I feel like I’m perpetually saying, Okay, I’m wearing my director of marketing hat here. But then other times, I’m saying, you know, guys, as an all-star parent, this was my perspective, this was my lived experience. This is what people in the oncology community are saying. And so it has been a benefit to have a staff member like myself that has lived this experience, and I’m still in the oncology community in a very deep way.
Spencer Brooks 18:34
It reminds me of something else that you mentioned, I think in one of our previous conversations, which is a unique approach to storytelling that involves another staff member that’s also dedicated to cultivating relationships with families. And so could you tell listeners a little bit more about that approach, how that works and how it’s changed the way that Pinky Swear and organization interacts with families.
MaryBeth Meyer 19:02
We have a dedicated staff member who her title is All Star Engagement Manager, essentially a family liaison who works directly with families. It is her full-time job. And we made this decision probably two years ago, post COVID, that we were getting interactions and emails and communications from families, from social workers, and we were having a really hard time making sure that families knew who to contact and we wanted it to be crystal clear who family’s point of contact was and who they could reach out to and it morphed really beautiful in an organic way to where every time I have the opportunity to talk to a family, they’re always talking about this one staff member in particular, she has done such a beautiful job, just being there for families. And you know, it’s not in her official job description to receive phone calls and text messages and emails and social messages from these families. But our families truly trust her. And she is a phenomenal listener. And I would say that’s probably 90% of our job is she just listens to our families. And as we have heard testimonials from families about the financial and emotional support that Pinky Swear provides to them time and time again, she is the emotional support that we’re providing families. Yes, obviously, the financial support is relieving some of the day-to-day burdens of our families. But time and time again, people are saying, it’s this staff member, she listens, she makes me feel heard, she understands. And it’s just been a really beautiful thing to have a staff member truly devoted to our families.
Spencer Brooks 21:12
One thing that I wanted to ask you about Marybeth, it’s a slightly different topic, but I know that you have held multiple positions at Pinky Swear, including some fundraising and development roles as well. And so I wanted to get your perspective on the fundraising aspect of ethical storytelling, right, obviously, in order to give money to families, you have to have the money. You know, all nonprofits know this. And so how do you go about using stories in an ethical way, when you’re handling asks and appeals and the fundraising portion?
MaryBeth Meyer 21:53
Yeah, I originally joined Pinky sort of foundation as an event coordinator for a radio event that we do every December. And that morphed into a role with partnerships and dealing with our corporate partners and our grants. And then I made the transition into director of marketing. So, I’ve seen kind of the full scope of our organization, how we market to the masses, how we make individual asks how we apply for grants, and all of it is centered around selling the impact, selling the work that we do. And it’s a tricky balance, I would say every nonprofit would say you must show impact, you must show what you are doing. And it gets to be sticky. But I think, again, going back to being ethical about the way that we gather content, and the way that we cultivate relationships with our families, our team says that our all stars and our families are at the heart of everything we do. And if it wasn’t for them, we would have no impact. If we didn’t have families reaching out to us and trusting that we would be able to help them, we wouldn’t have any impact stories to share. Now, it goes both ways. Because without funding, we would not be able to provide financial support to kids with cancer and their families. And so we’ve gone, we’ve had this delicate dance, obviously, we need funding. And obviously we need to show impact. And that’s been really interesting for me as a professional to be on both sides. But again, we have restructured and reorganized in a way that making sure that our families feel seen and heard, creates an avenue where we have more content than we could ever need from families because they’re so willing to share with us because they trust us. And that translates into being able to get those permissions to be able to share that on a massive scale, but also on a one-to-one scale. And so again, going back to our All-Star Engagement Manager, she handles all of that, she handles the process for getting content and the permissions. And we’ve been able to successfully to share these really intimate, beautiful hard stories with donors, which has translated into them understanding the direct impact that our organization has with these families. Yeah, has been great, especially since we have gotten away from in person events in this post COVID world.
Spencer Brooks 24:30
Yeah, yeah. Are there any other guidelines or tips or things that we haven’t touched on, that you’d like to share about just generally collecting and sharing stories or any other things that that we’ve left out that that you want to be able to share with folks?
MaryBeth Meyer 24:53
I can share my biggest pet peeve when it comes to ethical storytelling. So, I think it’s really really important for nonprofits to evaluate who do they serve? Who are the demographics of the people or communities that you serve? When you look at those demographics, match your marketing materials with those demographics. I was personally burned by a nonprofit that reached out to me and said, we would love to highlight your family’s story and use it in our I think it was their year-end appeal. And when I thought about it, my gut instinct was yes, I want to share, I want my family’s tragedy to be used in beautiful and huge ways. And then I got to thinking about it. And I was like, This doesn’t feel right. And then I reflected on our journey. And I realized, this nonprofit didn’t actually do anything for my family, and they don’t actually serve children. And it just left a really bad taste in my mouth. That has become kind of my focus when I’m looking at our marketing materials. I truly, truly believe nonprofits, demographics of their programs, and their marketing materials need to match.
Spencer Brooks 26:14
That’s really, really good advice. I’m glad I asked you that question. Thank you for sharing that. I wanted to transition into asking some of the questions that I asked every guest that is on the show. And the first question is just what’s one thing in digital you’re working on right now that it’s consuming a lot of your brain space? And what takeaways can you share with listeners who might encounter that same challenge?
MaryBeth Meyer 26:37
Oh, man, I can I say all things digital are consuming my brain? Like I mentioned earlier, we have moved away from in person, large scale events, just post COVID. And the fact that we serve children and families across the United States. And this has been a tricky one for us. Because moving away from in person events and into digital marketing, it’s required a lot of time, it’s required a lot of resources. It’s also, it just requires a lot of planning, and a lot of foundational work. So, in the last six months, my team and I, which I’m a team of two, we have completely rebranded our organization built a new website changed CRMs. And we’re still trying to figure out this thing called the Google Ads grant. So, if anybody has cracked the code, let me know. But I think it’s going to be truly transformational for our organization going forward, which will allow us to reach more people and ultimately support more families.
Spencer Brooks 27:44
That’s great. And also, I wanted to ask another question that I always ask, which is just what are two or three resources that you regularly use to keep up on news and trends in your work?
MaryBeth Meyer 27:54
So, this is a personal preference, I will always default to my face-to-face network. My mentors that I’ve had since I was in college, that’s usually where I’ll go to discuss what’s going on in your world? What are some best practices, let’s go out for coffee. That’s that is my number one resource that I use. I have become addicted to HubSpot dailies. I find their content, easy to digest and quick to get little tips and tricks here and there. And then honestly, podcasts like this, I think they’re super helpful. I think you can multitask and can get a lot of different perspectives in a relatively short amount of time.
Spencer Brooks 28:36
Love it. And as always, I’ll make sure to get those links in the show notes for folks. So you can access those. And lastly, MaryBeth, how can listeners get in touch with you if they’d like to learn more about your work?
MaryBeth Meyer 28:48
I would love for people to visit our website, which is Pinkyswear.org Also, I’m on LinkedIn, I am on both Pinky Swear and myself are on all things social. And I’m always up for meeting new people, hearing about what other nonprofits are doing. So definitely reach out via our website or social and I’d love to get connected.
Spencer Brooks 29:14
Wonderful. Well, that wraps up our show for today. As always, if you liked this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. The show is also part of the thought leadership of Brooks Digital. We are a Web Design and Development Agency for Health nonprofits. So, if you liked this podcast, feel free to check out our website at Brooks.digital. You can find more of our insights and learn about our work. But with all that said, MaryBeth, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
MaryBeth Meyer 29:43
Thank you for having me.
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