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  • Francisco Mahfuz

E96. Increase Your Impact and Do More Good with Allison Kooser



Below is an AI-generated transcript and therefore it may contain errors.


Francisco Mahfuz 0:00

Hi everyone, Francisco here. Just before we get started, I wanted to share something I'm really excited about. I recently launched the story powers bootcamp, a course that teaches you everything you need to know about how to find craft and tell stories that work. But it's not just an online course, because you get personalised feedback from me for all the practical activities in three hours of life coaching to work through any challenges, or focus on specific projects. So it's like if you bought a cookbook, but the chef came along with it. So go to story powers.com and click on Course, all the information you need will be there. So please check it out. And if you love the show, and would like to support us, you can go to buy me a coffee.com forward slash story powers. I drink about five coffees a day, so any support would be much appreciated. All right on with the show.


Welcome for the story powers podcast, the show about the power of stories that people who tell them and why you should be doing it too. I'm your host, keynote speaker and storytelling coach Francisco first. My guest today is Allison Kosar. As the chief storyteller at swell and good. Allison helps nonprofit organisations share their stories reach more people and raise more support, which has previously led donor acquisition outreach for Opportunity International, and served as a lead copywriter and marketing strategist for the Chicago Sun Times. Ellison might also be the only person I know who has even weirder habits, the mean, which I'm not sure I'm relieved for interviews about ladies and gentlemen, Allison because Alison, welcome to the show.


Allison Kooser 1:42

Thanks so much Francisco,


Francisco Mahfuz 1:43

just so I don't leave that one hanging. My very weird habits are that I only eat in the evening. I have freezing cold showers pretty much every day. And I create weird rules for myself that I feel obliged to follow. You do a few weird things too, right?


Allison Kooser 2:03

I think so. I like to consider them habits as opposed to weird but sure. I'm also interested in the rules. But yes.


Francisco Mahfuz 2:12

So you don't you wake up at 528 every morning?


Allison Kooser 2:15

I do I wake up at 528 every morning. Really that's a hangover from setting an alarm one time for 528 and it worked. And then you save that alarm on your iPhone. And it goes off every day. But I do like waking up before the sun for sure.


Francisco Mahfuz 2:30

Yeah, so I think waking up early used to be way weirder, then there it is. Now there's the isn't there like a 5am club or something like that. But 528 is very specific. In the other thing. And again, this is perhaps not a habit, but you've created a rule for yourself about not buying pretty much anything. And you made yourself keep it for a year.


Allison Kooser 2:51

I did. Yeah, I did a no buying year, which is a great experiment. I really do enjoy running these experiments on yourself. Think of it as a New Year's resolution that has an end date, perhaps. So I did a full year of no buying and I recommend it to folks, it's really fascinating to see what you already have and how you can use what you already have more effectively.


Francisco Mahfuz 3:12

I think you might be slightly confused there. Because all new year's resolutions have an end date. It's usually three days after


Unknown Speaker 3:20

January 10. Something right? Yes, yeah.


Francisco Mahfuz 3:25

Yes, it's not it's not as if all of us, you know, just go into the gym indefinitely after eating healthily and going to the gym. Since this is the last time we decided that. But you also, you know, bringing slightly more to the some of the stuff we're going to talk about you also read is 50 books that you try to read every year.


Allison Kooser 3:45

Yes, I tried to read 50 books a year. And I've been doing that since Gosh, 2011. So it ends up being a lot of books.


Francisco Mahfuz 3:52

I'm very aware of how many books that is because I've I didn't set out to read a specific number. But I remember a few maybe five years ago, I decided to just count how many I realised I had read a lot in that year. And I decided to count how many books that was. And I I ended up at like 80 something. Wow. And then I said that we could get it to 100. And I think I've only managed to do it once. Because otherwise you get to a point that is just ridiculous. Like no one will read this too big next year. I think that my lowest year in the last five has been something like 76 books, and my highest has been 104. But then again, you know, I started reading some, you know, fantasy or science fiction and there's like 10 books in a series and that's one week and a half. And I've read 10 books so it's not all you know, what is the name of the solitude there is not a soldier, the Proust book, The the memory of last time or whatever that is. So it's not it's not all a define reading. A lot of that stuff is is kind of embarrassing, but you know,


Allison Kooser 4:59

yeah, there stuff to learn from even embarrassing books. I think so read what you love.


Francisco Mahfuz 5:03

Yes, yes, very much. So. Alright, so one of the things I liked and assaulted, I can't remember if I read this or if I heard you say this, but I think you described your work as something like I help people come up with stories for when the work or the influencer trying to have is is far from where they are. So can you do? Can you elaborate on that a little bit?


Allison Kooser 5:28

Yeah, absolutely. So, the majority of the clients we work with as well and good are nonprofit organisations that work all over the world. And quite often, they are fundraising in a community that is either physically or conceptually far from where they're working. Right. So that could be anything from implementing a programme in rural Zambia and raising money in the United States to raising money on the north shore of Chicago and implementing programmes on the south side of Chicago, those are still worlds apart in many ways. And what I think is really powerful about the stories that we tell and the stories we tell for organisations, is that those stories serve as a bridge between those two communities. It's what connects that over there, which is really easy to kind of keep an issue at arm's distance, especially when those issues are hard with me right here, who might have more resources to be able to be part of an initiative. And so I think that the story serves as that connecting point, particularly, the more you can humanise and tell something impactful, that connects right the story is the connection point. And so I think that it lets people get close, especially in COVID times, right, where we can't go physically, quite often. And even in non pandemic times, most people won't go. And so how can you bring those two communities together more closely? And that's what our stories hopefully do.


Francisco Mahfuz 6:53

So now that you mentioned COVID, that has changed dramatically the way you work, right? Because if I understand correctly, before COVID, you were a travelling story, Hunter.


Allison Kooser 7:03

I was yes. So pre COVID. I was on aeroplanes a lot. And then that all sort of stopped, right? So now thankfully, because of technology, we're able to connect pretty well, virtually. It's also required us to rely a lot more heavily on local storytellers, which actually I think is better for our business and better for the stories we're telling in many ways. So figuring out how do you equip and resource people who are already part of the community to be your eyes and ears and get the stories and conduct interviews and take photos and then pass those along? There still is that bridge building element, right? So we're here, I'm based in the United States. And we're still here communicating with our donor groups and people here, but the bridge kind of has a second end right now on the other side, it doesn't require me getting on a plane and going necessarily, though I do miss travel a lot. And I'm eager for the day when I can go back to some of these communities.


Francisco Mahfuz 7:59

Yes, you are at a complicated moment, whereby you perhaps try to justify to new clients, or even to old clients, how the it's, you can absolutely do the same job now, even though you cannot travel, but as soon as you can travel, you need to find the vacation for now. You need to get me there. Okay, no, it was working perfectly. But you have no idea how much better it's going to work for me. And if I'm in Zambia one week, and if I'm him, so I want to talk about a fair bit about what what types of stories and what what you find that works and what doesn't. But let me just take one step back, which is, isn't storytelling, the most obvious thing that every nonprofit or charity organisation should be doing? I mean, I'm sure I'm sure they're not. But isn't this like the most obvious thing that they should go? Yeah, well, we did we have that covered, we messing up in all sorts of other ways. But the storytelling part we understand, but but that's not your experience, right?


Allison Kooser 8:57

No. And I think what happens a lot, rightfully so is that there are 1000s, literally 1000s of organisations that are started by founders who are really good at doing whatever the implementation programme is, right. So you have a social worker, or you have a community development expert, or an economic development expert, and they are starting a programme that does that. And at the end of the day, they're not marketers. They're not really fundraisers either, quite honestly. But they reach a point where they realise to do the work that they're good at, they need money. And the way that they raise money is by marketing and fundraising, and especially all these smaller organisations. It's not a good use of resources, quite honestly, for them to staff, full time marketers at the beginning, it's expensive, and presumably, there'll be pretty pigeon holed on what they're able to do. And so that story kind of goes by the wayside or is reliant on somebody, you know, sending emails to their personal network or something along those lines of, hey, I'm in the weeds every day on this work. And when I have time I remember to write some people about what's happening or what Got a video on my phone. And that's great. But it's not systematised. And so it's really easy for that to fall off, right, because you're prioritising as you should, the programmes that you're trying to run, whether that's feeding people or serving women and girls, or whatever the issue is, right. So we are able to come in and fill the gap and say, we are going to be dedicated entirely to story and, and telling stories that are intentionally designed to raise your money at the end of the day, so that you can continue focusing on what you do best, which is the work. So you know, there are large nonprofits that have huge marketing operations. And those are the ones who are great at storytelling. And we look to them as examples and say, What can we borrow from them, they don't really need our help. But there are 1000s and 1000s, who are much smaller, who would love to tell great stories that they know, they need to tell great stories we do very little convincing of, hey, you should be telling stories they know, it's just a matter of is that a priority is their time? And whose job is it?


Francisco Mahfuz 10:57

Okay, so that's an interesting one, I was going to ask you if if there is still any pushback, because this is something that in different parts of the work I do, and a whole bunch of other people that work with storytelling, you just find different levels of reluctance to do it or or people are sceptical about it. But it's interesting to know that in that in that world you live in they they're fully aware that this is a very powerful thing. But one of the challenges you mentioned is is how organised they are about it. Now, organisation aside, what would you say they find most difficult? Is it finding the right stories, crafting them in a way that they can actually share with donors or on social media? Or no, they can do those things. But they just you know, they they have no idea how to tell the stories?


Allison Kooser 11:45

Yeah, I think it's a few things, I think, in some ways, especially a founder led organisation, right? So really small staff, people who are very much in the weeds, their daily life is the story. And it doesn't feel unique, right? There's, it's what they're living. And if an outsider comes in and says, Hey, actually, this is amazing, we should be selling this in a lot of places, it sometimes comes as a surprise, because they're experiencing it on a day to day basis. It's normal, right? And doesn't feel, quote, newsworthy, but it is. And so I think that that's a big piece is identifying that they actually do have a story worth sharing and figuring out what that is. And it's almost always right in front of their faces. I think a lot of times people don't feel like they are strong storytellers. And what they mean by that is they don't feel like they're strong writers. And so they are weary to try to put together something like a newsletter, or a long form social post, or blog or anything like that. And then I think the third thing is just time, nonprofits are notoriously understaffed, and under resourced. And so everybody's hustling and going a million miles a minute. And so if they need to do something, it's literally a matter of where am I going to find 30 minutes to do an Instagram Live? I don't have it. And so I think that that is always a barrier. I do think, to your other point, something I just thought of that's interesting is the reason nonprofits are so cognizant of the power of story as opposed to a more traditional business might be, is because nonprofits don't have a product, right? The story is the product, what you're trying to sell, is the story so that people feel compelled to give, right so what people are paying for is the emotion and the heart and the impact. And the only way that gets communicated is through the story as opposed to a brand with a product. There is something you're getting an exchange, and the story is kind of the mechanism for that, as opposed to the organisation or nonprofit organisation where the story is all you have. That's it. That's what you got. And so I think that because of that nonprofit leaders are a little bit perhaps more on board with content marketing, in buzzword speak, but storytelling as a whole.


Francisco Mahfuz 14:02

Yeah. So I think that is a very interesting contrast to what you just said, which is, which I fully agree with. But then my mind, perhaps I'm too cynical. But then my mind went to all this products, which are just things we don't need that are not particularly more special than anything else we already have access to. But then because there is a story, they become this, this super useful and necessary thing. And we are really buying the products and I'm particularly thinking of what is the name of that brand. Is it Yeti? That does the like the thermal cups. Yeah, so I'm from Brazil, and there's a version of that called Stanley, the Stanley Cup, funnily enough in Brazil, and it's like this cup thermo cup thing that you put your beer in and it will take like an extra half an hour for the beer to get warm. And in. So my friends, like all of a sudden everybody has one of these things. They're really expensive. And I said, that's just like a thermos, isn't it? Like, you could just like as we've had thermos because been Brazil, people in the south of Brazil, we drink Mati. So everybody has a thermos is like, can you just not like you have one of those more thermos, I've seen it in your house uses mo themes. I'll know. But this this is different. This cup is different. So rubbish story about why I mean, he's great. It's great marketing. But I just think it's funny thinking like how not these companies are giving us real products. real value, it's the story. Something else you said, which I wanted to get back on was this idea of how people can see how interesting their stories are. So I've said this before, where if you don't think that where you are now is interesting, is usually because you can see how far you've come. So for a lot of people, that's the point, right? It doesn't matter where it is. It could be me being in Barcelona, having been originally from Brazil, there's a whole bunch of stuff that I had that happened to me just like this happened. And then this happened. I got them done, like I said, and then I've travelled to this country, and then I left it. But a lot of other people was like, wow, you've crossed the world, you've done this. And I wonder why that is? Or the notions just be free think so little of ourselves, that we automatically think that if we are doing it, it can't be that special?


Allison Kooser 16:23

Yeah. And I think I think because we experience our stories, day by day, we're rarely pulling back and looking at kind of this overarching narrative, right? We're looking at today, I woke up, and I drank coffee, and I did my work. And I replied to emails. And in the minutia, it's not that interesting, right. But if you take a step back and say, Oh, in five years, I built a business. That is a cool story. But it's pretty rare for people to do that to their own lives, right. And I think too, you see the highlight reels of other people's stories, and you see the inner workings of your own. And so it's really easy to celebrate the highlight reel. And it's harder, I think, to craft your own highlight reel in a way that comes off genuine and true and celebratory as opposed to cocky or out of touch with reality or something.


Francisco Mahfuz 17:14

Yeah, so I, I do a practice that I've mentioned a number of times in the podcast called homework for life where I write down every day, like, if I had to tell a story about the day, what would it be either something that happened or something that I remembered. And it's kind of surprising how it forces you to reevaluate things you thought were very small or nothing. Yesterday, I sat down to write down my my homework. And I'm like this, nothing happened to me, like nothing, I just I stayed at home working all day, there was nothing particularly interesting. My kids came home, it's just normal stuff, I realised that I have a five year old material. And at one point, the two year old was going completely mental about something nonsensical. And I kind of took her out of the kitchen and kind of said, you know, I, you seem very tired, you kind of freaking out over nothing, maybe maybe want to go to bed? And she's like, No, no. And then we came back to the kitchen. And thinking about it later, I thought, this is the very first time that I've genuinely treated the two year old as someone who might be doing something wrong, and needs to be educated about it. This is the very first time it's just in my head just stopped being a little baby who doesn't know what she's doing, and has become a person who has to understand that if actions have consequences. And I wouldn't have figured that out that that was the moment that happened if I hadn't stopped to think about it. And again, I'm talking about very small things. And on a normal day, these people were doing charity initiatives, sometimes the other half the other side of the world, there must be 15 Different things that they're doing on a daily basis that to most other people would sound fantastical.


Allison Kooser 19:03

Absolutely. And it's things that, you know, I love that story. One because that that is a story that is both very specific and universal, you know, and so I think that that's what builds a great bridge. But that's true of these organisations too. I think that the flip side of not knowing their stories, they get caught too big in the story of we are impacting 8 million lives, and that's hard to connect with as well. And so really where we often land is, can you find one person? What happened to that one person? What was the interaction with that one person, and this isn't unique to us, this is, you know, nonprofit, marketing 101 But it works because somebody far away can connect with that one person and they can see themselves in the experience. So you know, a mother in rural India and a mother in Austin, Texas. Their lives look very different, but they're still moms. They still want their kids to learn. They still want to put food on the table. Those experiences are shared. So that's where the bridge comes in. And those are the stories to try and tell.


Francisco Mahfuz 20:04

Sure, yeah, I agree that the one person is, you know, it's not you guys did an event that I think pretty much anyone that works with stories specifically, should, if they don't do it, they should be doing it is telling everybody now if you want to tell me, I often say this if you want, if I want to tell you how crazy my family was, I'm not going to tell you about my whole childhood. I'm just going to tell you about one Christmas dinner, and then you and then you get a picture. So I always say it's, you know, focus on one person and one moment in time. Don't tell me about the mom in India over how it is for her over the years. If you can pick one thing that happened to her that illustrates the rest. Which Which brings me to something that in my head I think of as the Rokia paradox. I don't know if you're familiar with the Rokia study, this is something that I can't remember now, if it was in Made to Stick, or if the guys who wrote me to speak, talked about it somewhere else. And it got popular because of that. So this is this study from Carnegie Mellon, I believe, where they gave people this charity story, right, and they talked about Rokia, who is this fictitional little girl in Mali, and there's a lot of hunger going on, because of wheat shortage or whatever. And then they asked people to donate money. And they donated something like $2.38, that was the average, then they they gave them instead of they didn't tell the broken story, they just gave them a whole bunch of data. You know, this is how many millions of children Baba, and then the donations went down by half. And then they tried both things together, they gave them the story about the girl and added all the data on top. In strangely to my mind, the donations were higher than if you just given them the data, but still lower than if you had just given them the story. So I think it was something like they went up from 140 to about 170. But that was still, you know, fairly substantial amount lower than with just the story. So when you're helping organisations find the stories that they they want to tell, do you always ditch the data completely? Do you still have the data somewhere in there? How do you navigate that problem,


Allison Kooser 22:13

you definitely need the data. And there, you know, there's something to be said here for audiences as well. Right. So who is going to be hearing the story. And that's I do actually remember that study reading about it. And a key factor there is kind of this mass market audience, right, someone who's unfamiliar and a general public, in those instances, the human story is going to be the connection point. And the data, quite often will bog down the story or make people feel like this problem is so big, that my $10 is not going to do anything. The data becomes really important when you're telling a story to a major donor, or an investor or someone who is looking to have perhaps a more specific and particular impact. So you know, if someone is preparing to give $100,000, that data becomes essential, right? That's what you're reporting on and showing impact over time. For you know, my neighbour who's going to give $10, that story is going to be really important. And so it's a matter of who you're talking to, and who your audiences, I do think there are some interesting use cases for data. But what people try to do is put everything in at once. And so when I've seen data work really well is you have one key stat. And it could be a big number, but that one number left, people latch on to it and they get it as opposed to let me rattle off these nine bullet points that are all really important data points. But there are so many, and they're so huge, and especially I work with a number of clients who work in global poverty, right? The numbers there and the things you're dealing with there are enormous you're dealing with, you know, okay, extreme poverty has increased because of the pandemic by 150 million, up to 800 million. You're like, what are we talking about here? These numbers are inconceivable in many ways, as opposed to, hey, here's a family. This is what this looks like, this is what has happened to them over the last two years and why your support matters, why it matters to be, you know, investing in extreme poverty alleviation. And then if you want, you can try to start extrapolating that to a larger scale, but I think the big numbers especially get very overwhelming very fast, particularly for people who don't have the capacity to give enormous amounts of money. You want to make a difference with your giving, right and so you want to see how that giving can make a difference to one person, especially for giving small dollar handles.


Francisco Mahfuz 24:40

Okay, so we talked about some of the stuff that works. We talked about some of the stuff that doesn't work, namely, big numbers and big data on on their own, or depending on your audience numbers that feel like their contribution is irrelevant. What else doesn't work what what are typical mistakes that you find within organisations that Maybe have tried to tell stories before, but didn't really get the type of result that that, you know, that they should be getting or could be getting from them. Yeah,


Allison Kooser 25:09

I think there's a lot of things to try, right. And what's interesting about nonprofit storytelling is you can try a lot, and depending on the organisation, something might work or might not work, depending who you're speaking to. I do think there are some things that generally don't work great. A lot of times, I think people lose specificity, not only in single person narrative, but in what they're actually talking about, right, especially an organisation that's doing a lot of work. If they try and talk about all of their programmes. At the same time, it gets really confusing and also immediately gets vague. And as soon as you're getting vague, it's hard to know what's happening and why things matter. And we do agriculture and education and hunger programmes and healthcare. And you're like, Okay, well, that's a lot. So I think that that is a challenge. I think, not knowing who you're speaking to. I know I was just talking about audience but not knowing who you're speaking to, is a big challenge. So we do a lot in our work with segmentation and targeting, to make sure that the right story is going to the right person. And the sense of is this somebody who knows your organisation? Well, in which case, you don't need to get into the minutiae of how you operate, you can just talk about the issue at hand, or is this a brand new prospect? In which case? What do you even do? You know, start at square one, do a one on one handhold people through the process, I think, on social people get nervous to get too honest, in the sense of, you know, I remember when Instagram Stories first launched, in Gosh, what was that? August 2016. I was travelling full time at the time for clients and Instagram, storied, my tree I was in Colombia, and I was Instagram storing every day behind the scenes, you know, like, Hey, we're walking down the street and doing meetings, and it was pretty boring in the scheme of things. So it was not very profound. But partially it was novel. It was


Francisco Mahfuz 27:06

it was only boring at some because you were you were going through it day by day to other people. It wasn't boring.


Allison Kooser 27:13

Exactly, exactly. Those day by day moments, people actually do care about, you know, the kind of minutiae of what's happening, people really get into. So I think that that's people forget that that kind of thing matters. And and then I think the last thing I'd say is people get nervous to give any bad news. In the nonprofit storytelling world, they want their stories to wrap up with a happy bow. Obviously, there is an element of hope that hopefully exists because otherwise, you know, why would people be compelled to give, but these are hard situations and things do not always go well, right. And especially storytelling on the backside of a gift. So if someone has donated to a programme, and the programme doesn't work, the way that we might hope it would, what I've seen be really effective is telling that story as it actually happened. Being honest and upfront, as opposed to trying to sugarcoat something. You know, I have clients who work in sexual violence, that's a hard topic that is never going to be all rosy and done. Right. And so the honesty is scary to put down and make permanent, but I think it's really important. So we always encourage people to be upfront. And you know, you don't have to, it's not therapy, you don't have to divulge everything. But I think the honesty really helps.


Francisco Mahfuz 28:32

Although having said that, one of the I'm not sure if it's one of the most successful cases, whether this is a successful case that I know about is Charity Water. And there's there's storytelling approach for anyone who doesn't know this. And I don't remember the exact story. But essentially, the guy who runs Charity Water was a big party guy, and had done all in like, he spent all his time partying like a crazy person and drinking and doing drugs and all this stuff. And I can't remember what exactly put him towards the charity world. But But I know that when he started fundraising, he was just sharing all of that stuff. He was basically saying, you know, I was a fuckup I did this, I did that and all this horrible things. And then I kind of saw the light and didn't hurt his fundraising efforts at all.


Allison Kooser 29:20

Now, Charity Water is, you know, the best in the business, quite honestly of nonprofit storytelling, partially because they employ a team of creatives and marketers very intentionally because storytelling is such a central part of their work. But Scott Harrison, the founder, his story is exactly that. Right. He is excellent, excellent at celebrating, and so he is very good at taking people along for the ride and making them feel like they're part of this party happening. And as a result, they have mastered what we call peer to peer fundraising, but basically, a lot of small gifts. They're exceptional at that because they get people into these movements. And they feel like they're part of something and they give. And so it's really cool to see. And they do. I mean, if you go to their website, they're doing all sorts of cool stuff and creative stuff with a full creative team, which is very cool and inspiring for our work as well.


Francisco Mahfuz 30:16

I heard him talk about some slightly different way of using story that perhaps is a lot more common in the corporate world, then than in other places. But he was him talking about the story, not as a fundraising tool, but as a, as a motivational tool within the organisation. And I think what he actually said was something like, you know, I think he was feeling that he wasn't making enough progress, or he wasn't, either he was just wasn't feeling it's there was something off and he said, I needed, I needed a new story, to reconnect with that purpose. So he went to one of the places where, where they did a lot of work and talk to a lot of people. And then, you know, there was something like there was a tree, and people laughed some some gifts or some objects near the tree. And he wanted to know whether what they were doing that for me was to do with this person who says woman who used to walk, I don't know how many miles to find water. And then in one day, she, she, she came back and stopped by the tree, put the water down and collapsed. And I think she died. And they sort of they celebrate her life and how great the person she was by leaving objects and buy this tree. And he says, yeah, that was it. You know, this is this is why we're doing, why we're doing this, why we bringing water to this place, or this type of story doesn't have to happen. And then that became the new story that they told internally. I don't know if they use that for fundraising. But that became the story that they use to energise themselves and remind themselves of what they are they were doing it for.


Allison Kooser 31:52

That's huge. Yeah, story as a why. I mean, that's amazing. And I think that we're all telling ourselves stories. Regardless of what we're doing, whether we are verbalising them or not, there are narratives, we're telling ourselves about our work. And so if you're able to craft that and get your whole team on board with a shared story, that's amazing. I mean, that is like, here is the propeller to move forward. I think that that's really, really a great practice for an organisation,


Francisco Mahfuz 32:24

something kind of obvious that we somehow have not talked about yet is in this could maybe this could fall under this things work, or they don't. But I when a lot of people think about nonprofit or charity stories, I think that go to, in most people's minds is a sob story. Okay, well, that you're going to tell me about some poor child that is hungry, or something along those lines. And I've heard you say something like that, in your storytelling, you you just, you don't want to or you refuse to use guilt, as the, you know, to guilt people into doing something. And I heard that and the first thing I thought is, I don't think you would get on with my mom at all. So just don't worry about that. Like, because I think the most people that's what charity stories are about, in a lot of ways, particularly what to do with children is like, Okay, you're you, you, you piece of crap, you're spending money on a new, you know, Yeti cup, and you're not saving a child in Africa. So why is that? Do not do it? Because you just don't feel good about it? Because it doesn't work that well. What's the what's the thinking behind it?


Allison Kooser 33:32

It does work. That's the challenge, right? It does work. So there's a reason that for decades, you've seen infomercials with starving children and flies in their eyes, right? There's a reason that happens. And it's because it does raise money, but it immediately paints people as victims. And in my experiences, I've travelled a lot. And I've met a lot of people who are living in extremely challenging circumstances, for a variety of reasons, whether that's poverty, or abuse, or illness or a multitude of things. And never once have I considered those people, victims, nor do they consider themselves victims, they're in difficult circumstances. And there are many situations where they might need help with a specific thing. But at the end of the day, like you are I, they are the protagonist in their story. And they are doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt. And so to paint them as this object, right? This is this poor baby who needs our help and can't do anything on their own. That's just not true. That's a child who has a lot of potential, and perhaps, extremely limited opportunities to realise that potential, but they're still human. And so for me in my work, I think that the humanity of people and and prioritising the humanity of people, even if that makes the storytelling and at the end of the day, the fundraising more challenging. That's more important. That's the integrity of the work right. And so I think about adults, even people who I work a lot with small business owners around the world traditionally, you know, you might have heard of microfinance, right people who are living on less than $2 a day and are starting businesses. I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of women who have received microfinance funding to start their businesses. And every one of them thinks that they are doing something amazing because they are, they've started their small business owner, right, and they maybe have increased their income from $2 to $2.50, which in our world is still impossible to imagine. But that's huge progress. And that's moving forward. And so I try to do things that feel celebratory of that progress. You know, you don't want to paint it as the story is over. Yay, we did it. Because you do need people to fund things. But there's a lot to celebrate. And there's a there is a tonne, you know, we talked about being asset based, right? So there are a lot of deficits, and you can focus on those deficits really easily. But there are also a lot of assets. And so how can you use the assets to paint a picture that shows somebody as a full and complex human, with their own feelings with their own agency with their own dreams that are not the dreams we're putting on them? They're the dreams that they already had one example. I take pictures, often of these people. I mean, I'm a photographer by I would say hobby and sort of trade. Not very trained. But one thing I started doing a long time ago was I would take pictures of people when I'm kneeling, and they're higher up, right. So from a from a down angle. And what that does is it kind of makes people look like heroes, right? And so even that posture of I'm going to kneel down, and you're the hero here of this story. And yeah, of course, they're facing challenges, but they're the ones who are the centre. They're the protagonist. And so because of that, I try and avoid all the the easy grief messaging, it works. But it's It feels very unhuman to me, in many ways.


Francisco Mahfuz 37:01

Now that you say that. I am not concerned about my parenting because I realised that that's how my children see me. They're always from that angle. And I'm not sure I'm coming across very heroic. I've managed to mess it up enough that not even the hero angle is doing it for me. A couple of things from I give all the things are much said the first one is that I think that if you turn the tables around, why the sob story? The problems with the sob story become a lot more apparent, because I think if you if you are the person running the nonprofit, in you may be one to be using sob stories more, if you just if you're just talking to that person say Okay, so when we pitch you to investors, should we say that you're a poor, useless thing that cannot do anything on your own? And please give us some money? Or should we say that you you, you're someone worth investing in? Because that's the obstacle stopping you from doing all the things that you can do? And I think people very quickly realise that you don't, you don't want a handout you want investment?


Allison Kooser 38:09

Right? Absolutely, absolutely. And the flip side of that, too, is for the donor, you know, buying into philanthropy, because you feel guilty, and like you're spending your money in bad ways. That's, you know, you're immediately going to approach giving as an obligation or a penance or something, as opposed to I am participating in philanthropy because I have been blessed with resources or this is a joyful expression of generosity or any of these more positive or yeah, I'm investing in the potential of another person, any of these more positive framings of why you would give money. I think that that story is important on the other side as well.


Francisco Mahfuz 38:48

Yeah. And the other the other point as well is and I can't recall the recall the expert this specific research, I read, it might have been the same article that talked about the Rokia experiments, but it was something to do with how far or how far or you can go with with guilt. And my if I recall correctly, he was it isn't very far, that it's very, very quickly you burn out from from reading sob stories. So you you either end up sort of blocking the emails of that particular charity because you don't want to be made to feel bad every time an email comes through. But it's also that what seemed to get people on board was the idea of this, this this journey or this project you're now embarking on so he was you can do the sob story, but it's like, okay, it was horrible. Now it's gotten better. So there's a bit of hope there and you can maybe the next time can be a little better in then there is a problem, but the problem is not they're still dying of hunger. Because if it's that, you know, three males running I think it's easy enough to to now just because you don't want to be made to feel miserable all the time.


Allison Kooser 39:58

Exactly. Yeah. And yeah, It will work. You know, it's kind of the same as emergency fundraising, which also works really well. It's kind of these blasts of oh, I have to give to that, because this is horrible and tragic. And then you're done. As opposed to, you're buying into this much longer, much deeper, much more powerful story that hopefully will last years, and you will be part of the journey of the organisation moving forward, which is what the organisation wants. At the end of day two, they want recurring givers and people who are part of the story that they're telling. So when you


Francisco Mahfuz 40:33

used to go to these places, and look for the stories there, what were you looking for, specifically, what what types of questions would you ask people to, to elicit some of this some of the stories,


Allison Kooser 40:45

I think the biggest thing, in a lot of my work, and part of it is just the fact that I come in very much an outsider, right? I don't blend in very easily, especially in a lot of the communities in which I'm working. And so I think that my first priority always was to try and build a rapport with the people out interviewing and sit with in the sense of, I am excited to meet you. And you to my point, earlier, you are the protagonist, hear your stories, what I'm excited to hear, and people generally have been waiting for a captive audience to share their stories. In my experience, particularly people living in extreme poverty, no one is asking them anything about their lives and and what they're excited about, or what they're hopeful for, or what they wish for their children. And so even just to sit and listen and say, Hey, I, I am genuinely curious about your life, and all of its ups and downs. I think that that is the starting point of all of these conversations. And then when I started getting into it, I think, you know, children are a huge one. And it's kind of a universal experience of what do you hope for your kids? Why are you prioritising education for your children? Because everyone is everywhere in the world. Everyone is prioritising education for their children, even if they have no resources. That's the first place their money is going, why, you know, what does that look like? What does that make possible? I think it's really interesting to talk to people about dreams, depending on culture, dreams for the future, are either immediately on the tip of your tongue, or something you have never considered ever once, in some contexts, I remember being in in Delhi, in India, now as interviewing women. I interviewed 300 Women in Delhi over the course of three weeks, and it was crazy. And you would ask them about their dreams for the future. And it was blank, because that was something that they had never considered or been given the opportunity to have. Right? I think it's a result of a lot of different compounding factors, caste system, social hierarchies, extreme poverty, and a lot of religious mentality there as well. All compounding in the sense of the situation I'm in can't change, and therefore, I just have to get through it. And it makes hope, really challenging in that context. Whereas rural Africa, I would sit with women and say, What do you hope for, for the future. And immediately, it's, you know, I want to build my own house, I want my kids to graduate from high school, I want to grow my business and have a grocery store, or I want to buy a car or whatever, culturally, that was a much more common practice was to think about, okay, I'm in a challenging spot now. But what might tomorrow look like? So I think that those questions are really interesting. And then try and just get into people's actual situations, right? Because despite all the hope and happiness for the future, of which there is a lot, the immediate situation is always hard, right? It, you know, I'm meeting them. And I'm, they're working with an organisation because they're in some sort of challenging situation. And so trying to dig into both, what is that situation? And how are you surviving it, those two pieces, I think, just require a lot of active listening and kind of picking up the threads that people leave untied a little bit, it's the same way for you and I, you're not going to immediately jump into your personal trauma or challenges that you're facing right now, necessarily, but if someone asks you specifically about it, because you referenced it, you might be more willing to say something. I can think of one story of a woman in Malawi who I met named Mary, who, you know, extreme poverty, really difficult economic circumstances, for sure. But she had become this kind of community leader. And so for her when she started telling her story, she's talking about her kids kind of the normal narrative that I've heard a number of times, and she said, you know, and I started volunteering at the hospital. Okay, interesting. Let's talk about that. What does that look like? She started helping all these moms. Then we walked further down that thread, and she was helping moms as newborns because her kids were fully grown. And then she said, yeah, and, you know, I was working with an organisation and got a microfinance loan. And that helped me increase my income. And so I started telling these moms about how they could do microphones. Finance, where you know, Okay, next question. Next question. Next question turns out at the end of the day she had built so I was working with Opportunity International, which is a large microfinance organisation at the time, and they work with trust groups. And she had single handedly created 20 additional trust groups. That's hundreds more women. And she had would never just willingly share that fact. It took these like, Okay wait hospital, tell me more. Moms Tell me more. Women Tell me more. Oh, yeah, I made 200 People get loans and grow businesses, like you started 200 small businesses. This is insane. So I think that that is that's the journey, right? That's the story that they get uncovered in the truest sense. And then it's a matter of getting to bring those back and post them on Facebook, or in an email.


Francisco Mahfuz 45:51

Yeah. So you listen to the study, go, sister, let me tell you about something here bragging. It's a great thing. That's what Instagram and Facebook are for you missing out. Let's, let's try on some selfies, and some headlines about your business achievements.


Allison Kooser 46:09

It's the same thing is day to day, what we're talking about before what we're talking about before, I'm like, this is her daily life. She's like, Oh, yeah, of course I did that. I'm like, pause everything. This is enormous. What are you talking about? So I think that that kind of thing, it gets lost, because it's just regular for her.


Francisco Mahfuz 46:24

One final thing that I wanted to, I thought about when you were describing before, how important it is for people to know who they're speaking to. And it's not quite the same thing. But when one thing I was trying to figure out was, so there's the cause, or there's the mission, or there's the project or whatever the work that these organisations are doing, and not knowing pretty much anything about this, this world. Part of me thinks that before you know who you're speaking to, you need to know what stories you have to tell. And it's in my head. I'm thinking, doesn't the story come before the audience? Because if you don't, if you don't know what stories you're going to share, how do you choose which audience to target? So you know that those stories are resume? So am I I completely off track here or the substance to that?


Allison Kooser 47:12

Yeah, I think it's a little bit chicken and egg in some ways, we create basically repositories of stories for a lot of organisations. So, you know, these are the powerful things that illustrate impact. These are the five people who have really had a huge transformation because of services, something like that. So you have those kind of in your back pocket. But also, nonprofits are choosing audiences really intentionally. And there is this kind of known segmentation of audiences in many ways. For any organisation, this is not specific, but you're going to have your existing donors, you're going to have prospects meeting people who have indicated interest but haven't ever given. And then you're going to have some segmentation going on of capacity to give, right? So major donors which are going to operate much more like investors, and mass donors who are going to operate much more like social media givers, or something like that. So those audiences, you know, exist from the beginning. And so as you're uncovering stories, and finding new stories, you kind of can target them accordingly to the audiences that you know, exist. I think there's also the last thing I'll say, probably timewise, but there's this big narrative of the organisation, right. And that's a fixed story. In many ways. This is what the story of our brand is. And that is, you know, us coming in and helping with a messaging architecture, and how do we talk about ourselves? And what is our brand narrative, right? And then there are all of these impact stories. And those are, in many ways, endless for a nonprofit, because every single day, they're doing work, and every day, there's a new story. So for your homework purposes, it's that it's everyday, what did we do? And how are those cool things to share. And so I think you have your brand architecture and your narrative of the brand and the organisation. And that's, that you have first before you have an audience, you know how you talk about yourself. But all those individual stories, you're pulling them in, and you're finding them as you go. And you might be thinking about, you might be thinking about a one specific donor you have who you know, is really excited about secondary technical education, and they want to fund stem in Uganda. And all of a sudden, you're like, hey, wait, I have this stem in Uganda student who now is learning to be a web developer, that one story is for that one donor. And that's it. And it's the only reason you care is because you had the audience in mind. So I think that you get a lot of those moments. It really is kind of this treasure hunting right for the stories in many ways, because in so many ways, there are endless there. There are amazing things happening every single day. And so it's a matter of which ones we want to tell and who do we want to tell them to.


Francisco Mahfuz 49:55

On that point. I agree. That should be the last thing we do say. So I was looking, you know, do my research as I normally do, and the platform that I use a lot. LinkedIn is not the one you use a lot. So if people want to find out more about you and the work you're doing and and follow up what you have out there, what's the best place for them to go to?


Allison Kooser 50:16

Yeah, so the best place is swelling, good, calm. Two things. I'll point you there. One is a newsletter we put out every Thursday. So for sure, subscribe, you can subscribe right there. And you'll get both reflections from us on storytelling and work life and impact and all that good stuff, plus some links from other people's thoughts. And then you'll also see a huge aggregate blog on there, which is where we share a tonne of our content that is free and available for anybody to use. And if you are a nonprofit interested in getting support and your own storytelling, and fundraising, you can reach out there as well. And we would love to talk to you about how we can work together.


Francisco Mahfuz 50:50

I'll stick all those links in the in the show notes. But I have to ask now, because I couldn't quite figure it out. What is this? What does the name come from?


Allison Kooser 50:59

Yeah, so there's an expression well and good, which is what kind of inspired it but the swell and the wave. The idea is organisations already have a lot going on, and they're ready for it. And it's how can we take what you have and make it bigger? So help you have a bigger impact, more influence and swell the work you're already doing to do good?


Francisco Mahfuz 51:17

Okay, fair enough. Fair enough. I have scratched that itch. Thank you very much. Okay, Alison, thank you very much. This has been a pleasure.


Allison Kooser 51:27

Thanks so much, Francisco. Alright, everyone.


Francisco Mahfuz 51:29

Thanks for tuning in. Take care of yourselves. And until next time.


I hope you enjoy the show. And if you did, I'd love for you to subscribe and leave us a review or a rating on the Apple podcasts app. It's very easy. You open the app and find the show and scroll down a little and when you see the stars tap. I'd really appreciate it and it does help other people find us. And if you'd like to get in touch or find out more about what I do, reach out to me on LinkedIn or visit my website story powers.com



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