WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
124: The People Behind The Products: Authentic Storytelling that Cultivates Connection with Chris Miano
“We all know how to tell our story, it might not be perfect, but it is still valuable.”
– Chris Miano
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
Grassroots storytelling emphasizes genuine, human experiences that can deeply connect with the audience. Rather than focusing on a polished narrative, it prioritizes the authenticity and raw emotions of individuals who are not professional storytellers. This form of storytelling can have a profound impact on the listener, as it evokes empathy and understanding by showcasing the unfiltered realities faced by real people. In this episode we interview Chris Miano, a passionate advocate for authentic storytelling and founder of MemoryFox, a storytelling platform for nonprofits to collect and leverage stories from their communities for fundraising and marketing. MemoryFox was initially designed as a storytelling platform for pre-dementia elderly but pivoted to serve all nonprofits. Chris has an incredible journey that started with his time in the Army and the desire to preserve his grandfather’s stories from World War II.
In this episode, Chris urges non-profit marketers to embrace grassroots storytelling, rejecting the idea of creating perfect, scripted stories. Instead, Chris values the imperfections as a representation of genuine human experience. He believes that the energy, tone, and body language of the storyteller are more compelling than carefully selected words, emphasizing the need for non-profits to prioritize honest and relatable narratives. For nonprofits, grassroots storytelling also provides an avenue to hear and learn from their own communities and share these insights with a wider audience, effectively promoting their cause.
Chris and MemoryFox
TIPS AND TOOLS TO IMPLEMENT TODAY
Get to know Chris Miano:
Chris Miano was born and raised in Buffalo. He spent eight years in the Army traveling around the world and learning about the power of storytelling as a tool to connect with people across many cultures, generations, and socio-economic backgrounds.
When he returned home from Afghanistan, Chris thought about his grandfather who was a WW2 veteran, and how cathartic it would have been to have him around to share stories with. This inspired Chris to create MemoryFox. The organization started as a way to capture the life story of his elder family members, and eventually grew to support mission-driven organizations.
Chris has made it his mission to elevate the stories of real human beings. He believes that through storytelling with grassroots community-generated content, the world can become a more inclusive and equitable place for everyone.
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Mallory Erickson 01:42
Welcome, everyone, I am so excited to be here today with Chris Miano. Chris, welcome to What the Fundraising. Thank you for having me. So I have loved learning about Memory Fox over these last few months in particular, and I’d love for you to just start and tell everyone a little bit about your story, your journey, what brought you to ultimately bringing Memory Fox to life and what it is that you all are up to right now?
Chris Miano 02:07
Yeah, I think one of the unique things about us is that we came into what we do a little bit backwards than I think a lot of people did. And we’re kind of unabashed about that we’re not, you know, we think that that’s actually an advantage for us in some ways. So I used to be in the army. And when I got out of the army, I thought a lot about my grandfather who was in the Navy during World War Two, and how cathartic it would have been to be able to share stories with each other and to be able to share experiences. And you can imagine how that would be helpful. And unfortunately, he passed away when I was young. And so that wisdom was never really passed down. And so I was like, it seems like today, we there should be a way to sort of collect all those stories from family members. And we actually originally built memory Fox, as a way to interview pre dementia, elderly to get their life stories, so that it can be passed down through generations, and everyone can learn through this very primal method of communication across generations, storytelling across cultures across everything, right. So we started with that, and a local nonprofit asked if they could use it to interview some veterans for a fundraising campaign. And I was like, oh, that’s, that’s pretty cool idea. How do you do that now, and they’re like we don’t, it’s really hard, we don’t really have the time to do it, or really the expertise to be able to leverage the type of like video technology to make it really pop. And we definitely don’t have the money to spend, you know, 15 grand on someone to be able to come in and do that. And so we did the initial project was course right before COVID went well. And then they introduced us United Way and then sort of snowballed from there. And we pivoted right. And that happens a lot with startups as they start with something and they pivot in something that turns out to be more rewarding. And so what it transitioned to, it’s a storytelling platform for nonprofits that helps them collect stories from their community, and be able to leverage them in their fundraising and marketing. Pretty straightforward. You know, there’s a lot of really cool bells and whistles to it that we’ve built over time. But what’s neat about a license is sort of an advantage is because, I mean, now we’ve been doing it for years now. But like, we are not from the nonprofit. We weren’t from the nonprofit world, right? But we are veterans, I hire only like leaders, right? And one of the leaders is they seek to really understand what they’re doing. They don’t have an ego about it. They seek to serve, right. I hire like servant leaders is like a big thing for me. And if we’re going to serve the nonprofit community, well, you better be listening and telling people what the solution is. And so it’s been an amazing journey. But there’s a lot more to do, right? I mean, there’s just so much when it comes to storytelling that isn’t just collecting stories. It’s how do you make them pop? How do you really make them rewarding to watch and all the different types of stories that you can collect all the different methods like imagine you are the Director of Marketing at a food bank, you want stories with our unique challenges to collecting those stories? You know, at a food bank, you’re dealing with homelessness, or you’re dealing with addiction. And you’re dealing with all these types of things. Well, all those are unique little use cases. And so that’s kind of where we’re going. And that’s we’re really excited to be able to help.
Mallory Erickson 05:17
I love that journey. And I love where you started. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. And she did Steven Spielberg did those show of videos where they captured? And she got to do two of them a pre war one, and then it went, she was taken to the camp and after? And yeah, it is probably the most valuable thing that we own in our family. And that’s what’s in the family,
Chris Miano 05:41
Like hundreds of years. Like it’ll be in perpetuity, right? It’s unbelievable.
Mallory Erickson 05:45
So I think what you’re doing is so important, and it’s been so personally meaningful to me to have something like that. Can we talk about the storytelling piece? Because I would love to hear from you. Storytelling is a hot word. At the moment, everyone is talking about storytelling. But I don’t think there’s a lot of nitty gritty conversations about what does it mean to tell a good story? What’s the purpose of telling a good story, so I would love to hear how you think about some of those things.
Chris Miano 06:13
Yeah. And so I come from like a punk rock background a little bit, right. Like, I want to hear the people’s stories. That’s why I’m passionate about this. I want to hear the ONS and I want to hear the oz. I want to feel it. And I think that we get too wrapped up in what a perfect story is, because we watch a lot of Star Wars, and we watch a lot of Marvel movies, where it’s painting by the numbers, okay, we’re going to establish the this and then we’re going to establish the depths. There’s a reason that that works, just because your mind sort of gravitate towards that like a piece of music, it has to have a finish to it. But real life, on the other hand, is very messy. And there isn’t always a beginning and an end. And that interaction you’re having, it may be only like one piece of the story. And so we think of it more as the organization telling their story through other voices and content collected from their community. Obviously, many volumes have been written about what the perfect story is. And there’s some amazing consultants in the industry, who I’m sure you’ve even talked to, who do better work than I do when it comes to that. But what I’m interested in, is I want that grassroots story from that person who’s not an expert storytelling, but it’s like teaching a bird to sing, right? Like birds just know how to sing might not be a great story, that bird might not be a great singer. But like it knows how to sing. We all know how to tell our story. Is it going to be in a way that’s like Martin Scorsese? Know, most of us? Probably not. But especially if you’re trying to get story from like someone who’s a permission beneficiary, right? It’s not realistic to expect them to follow. Because they’re living it right. There’s no resolution, probably they’re living it. And so that’s something that I’m very passionate about. And I think it’s once it’s unique that we provide is the elements to a story that pieces to a story that allow you to compose your story in a way that you see fit, but to expect that you’re going to collect these great stories from people. I think they’re all great, right? They make me cry all the time. And they probably would most people to, and I think a lot of nonprofits, a for profits to probably like you’re too focused on it being perfect. When it’s like people just want to see people, they want to see the energy, they want to feel the vibe of it, they want to know what you’re doing. As you can tell, I get, I get pretty passionate about that, because there is a lot of conversation about that stuff. And I want to make sure that people know that we’re a little bit different than that, like we have a little more punk rock aesthetic when it comes.
Mallory Erickson 08:43
Okay, I could not love what you said more. Because I think number one, decreasing the activation energy that it takes to start storytelling, I think is so important. And I think this idea of perfectly crafted stories, also reduces often times the authenticity through which people feel the story being told. So I think that the advice that you just gave, and what you just shared there is so incredibly important. And it also makes me think about the fact that I just talked about this in a totally different context yesterday. So it’s kind of wild that it’s coming up here too, which is I was on a group coaching call and I was modeling a conversation I would have with a donor. And another person inside my program said, how do you always know the exact words to say, like, it just flows off your tongue? And I said, you know, I think my answer is going to surprise you. I don’t think you’re actually really hearing the words. They said, I’ve never heard anyone else use the words you use. And I said, I actually don’t think that’s probably true. But I think what you feel is my energy saying the words what you feel are my beliefs behind what I’m saying. And that is making you feel fundamentally different when you hear it. And so this piece that you’re saying around letting energy transfer getting out of that, you know, the science shows us that people only actually retain in memory, a small percentage of the words that somebody says, and it’s all about that energy, body language, tone, all of those things. And so I just love what you’re saying. Because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. Not these, like performance robots that are reading from a script. So I couldn’t agree with that more.
Chris Miano 10:28
Yeah. And I think there’s another element to is like, this is what we do, right? We elevate voices, not to be inclusive about it, like the meaning is in the details is in the arms and the eyes and the feeling that that’s a human. And when you elevate the voice of somebody like that, who’s never been heard before, that in and of itself is a good, and as long as you’re focused on things like that, like you can’t lose.
Mallory Erickson 10:51
Okay, you can tell me if you don’t want to talk about this, you’re touching on something really interesting here, which is how does the nonprofit ensure that they are both respectfully sharing the stories that they’re capturing, but also, I think the point that you just made is so important, what happens when a story comes in that something about it, is activating some of your feelings, and you’re having a certain response to it. Because we all have our own biases and fears and concerns when there’s certain stories that maybe we don’t want to send out. There’s a narrative we’re holding about why we don’t want to send it out. And I think it’s actually an important place for us to look in ourselves around our own biases and beliefs and things like that. But I’m curious, do you guys have any practices that you talk about, or how you sort of encourage folks to ship it? Like they get it in? Maybe it’s not the one thing they thought or the person didn’t say exactly what they thought they were going to? How do they move forward?
Chris Miano 11:50
That’s interesting. You said that, you know, of course, I can’t remember the name right now. But we have actually done some stuff on like ethical storytelling and like, ethically do this, because there are many implications on that, like social media is kind of this weird place, and you throw things out there. And you can’t just be throwing everybody’s stories directly onto social media. So that’s why I actually one of the key pieces to this is like, you’re sort of also an intermediary to like they share their story with you. And there’s an implicit trust and a contract that exists there that like you will ethically leverage their story. And that’s different for every organization and things like that. One of the things that I do try to stay away from is that like, I am not not to position myself as an expert things that I am not an expert on. Most nonprofit marketers and fundraisers that I talk to are actually the experts on this. And they know their community best. And so know your community and like what the ethics are for the stories that are being told, if you’re like a skateboarding nonprofit that’s trying to get like skateboard parks, like chair away, right. But if you’re dealing with more difficult things, obviously, those have to really go through a rigorous vetting process. And those ethics have to be a part of your organization, like everything that you do. So I wouldn’t want to go too far with that. But I know that what I would like to say that we spend time working on content with a lot of thought leaders in that world on our website, and we’ve interviewed them on our podcast as well, because that stuff is very important. It’s ever evolving, right? So we continue to kind of make sure that we stay out out of that for sure.
Mallory Erickson 13:23
I really appreciate all that. Can we circle back to the piece around? What have you seen in your work? And maybe with the clients that you’ve been working with? How have you watched stories transform relationships between organizations and their funders, like what role particularly video storytelling,
Chris Miano 13:43
this may be personal to me a little bit, is, well, I’m not a new father anymore. I just three now. But newer, I guess. And once you have kids, for those who’ve had kids, it’s just your whole system goes haywire, and you start to look at things differently. And one of the unique advantages of our platform is because it is private, it allows children to sort of be included in these things where if it’s like direct to Social, I’m very, always very wary of that stuff. Right. But now there’s like an intermediary who is expected to be ethical, right. And we built in the ability to collect approvals and things like that just for this. So anything involving kids, you know, when you get to see a kid, explain, you know, a camp, or something maybe more uncomfortable and things like that, like, it builds connection in a way and resonates in a way that there’s no way that text or a picture could just do that. But one that’s actually most near and dear to my heart should have started with us is as a veteran, we have one called Hiring Our Heroes, and they collect stories from veterans that go through their program. Then they use those stories to help solicit but it’s funding from like corporations and things like that. And getting to see those stories is like amazing because like that That was my journey when I got out of the army was trying to figure out what I was going to do next, right. And this is an amazing program, where they get the tools they need to be able to resume build corporate connections and things like that. And I actually saw like, people I serve with us, it was just like, totally mind blowing to see things come full circle like that. That was one thing, I guess that would be one that sticks out, mostly for me, because hiring veterans like that, and transitioning veterans is a very, very, very near and dear to my heart. So that was pretty cool.
Mallory Erickson 15:33
That is so cool. I’m curious, you know, you came into this not expecting to be a service provider for the nonprofit sector, not having grown up in the nonprofit sector, what have been some of the biggest surprises for you about working with and in this sector.
Chris Miano 15:52
So I ended up working with a lot of like, you have to raise money for your business, you know how that stuff works. Like, there are a lot of misconceptions about the nonprofit industry and people who choose to work in it. And I think they’re really gross. And because I have learned that some of the smartest craftiest, cleverest marketers and people in general that I’ve ever met, have been in the nonprofit world, and also the army, like people who can operate in an environment of constrained resources, and still make the sausage and make great sausage, like, those are the people that are moving the needle on this in this world. And like, we get so focused on the capitalists and the Elon Musk’s of the world. And it’s like, how many nonprofit leaders can people name that are like famous, like they probably were famous first. So it’s very rarely like, we’ll hold those people on pedestals. And like, you want to learn how to run a lean mean team. Don’t go talk to somebody at Microsoft talk to somebody in a nonprofit, right, and mom and pop shop that deals with like food scarcity, they’ll teach you everything that you need to know. And so that’s been the coolest part of it. It’s like it is a very military sense, but not in the sense of like the discipline and like the army piece to it. But like the sense of, like I said, operating in a resource constrained environment, still doing great things, because you believe in people and you believe in mission, and you’re unified and those types of things. So that has just been an absolute absolute pleasure to get to experience firsthand.
Mallory Erickson 17:24
I love that you said that. Because I have often joked when people are praising a corporate leader for what they’ve done with their $50 million, or whatever, I’m like, Oh, my God, please go to a nonprofit and see what they’ve done with $50,000 and then go back and redo that article. Yeah, I could not agree with what you said more. So thank you for saying that. What are some of the things that make you you know, we live in an environment right now, where I think a lot of what people see in the news or on social media can be very doomsday. So what are you seeing and watching? That is making you feel really hopeful for this sector and for the world?
Chris Miano 18:07
It sounds a little biased, but it’s like the stuff that I see people collecting with memory Fox and putting out there. Like, that’s sort of the ethos of it, right? Is that the way social media was built? Negativity thrives, right? You go on Twitter, you go on, maybe less on Instagram, and things like that. But generally speaking, right? Like, what were tuned that way, humans, they’re worried about the snake in the bush, like, that’s the way our brains are built. And social media tries to hijack that to, like, get that dopamine release. And it’s just a constant stream, where it’s like, what our thing is, is like, well, what if we just get real stuff, like real stuff that’s like real people, real wins, real struggles, but real, at least real, right? Not fake, you know, virtual thing is a little sort of a loaded word now, but you know what I mean? And like, get that into the world. And I think that we can be a part of that. And I think young people are kind of better than us. Like, I’m optimistic about my kids, more than maybe most people would, because they’re gonna grow up in a world where like, they intuitively understand gender and race, it won’t be this thing where it’s like, oh, my grandfather said this. And then this said this, like, they won’t be like that, they’ll just intuitively understand this stuff. And so their relationship with those types of things. And then technology to like, they’ll just be sort of second nature to them. They’ll be able to spot and fake news a mile away. Whereas I think like people who grew up on like traditional media, that transition has been very difficult. And I’m very empathetic to that, because obviously, we love people, we understand their challenges as they go through that. But like young people, I think they’re gonna have it figured out. They’re not gonna be perfect because nobody is right. And then one day, their kids will say the same thing to them, hopefully. Like it was an error. I’ll mess this up, but like, they put Socrates to death for corrupting. The Youth right I was Socrates we were having this conversation since the beginning of time. So like, it’s not new.
Mallory Erickson 20:09
I always joke with my husband like, what is me going to go to therapy for, you know, maybe I’m trying to do all the things, but something else that I don’t know. And so I’ve just said to him, I’ve just said, she’s just gonna start therapy at 10 Just start to make up for all the things I’m messing up. And that’s the only thing I know.
Chris Miano 20:31
Like, you guys ate way too much meat, guys a way to you, I mean, like this, the environment, they’re gonna be like, man. You know that. But then one day, like, they’ll have kids, and then they’ll be mad at them about something that will just like, that’s the circle of life, kind of.
Mallory Erickson 20:49
Yeah, the youth make me really hopeful. And it’s really interesting. I saw a post on LinkedIn, maybe yesterday, where someone was complaining about the fake shows of humanity on LinkedIn. And not just that, but that they were getting such high traffic that people would be like, Look at me do this very nice thing. Like, I just had a baby. And I took off two days of work to take care of my baby, my wife, who just got out of the hospital, and then like, everyone’s like, good job, you know. And we’re like, what is really timely, in my mind, also around, somebody commented underneath that everything’s fake. And I was like, wow, you must not work with any nonprofit. Right? That was?
Chris Miano 21:31
Exactly, yeah. That is a beautiful, beautiful insight. And that’s why I love what I do every single day. And like, of course, this platinum, one of the number one questions we get asked is like, why don’t you work with for profits? And well, this is really good stories are like, I don’t want to help sell vacuums. Like that’s not interesting to me, like, so people solving that problem, right? Our problem is how do we make this as easy as possible? Like people, nonprofits are also very busy. They’re very time strapped. They don’t have a lot of people. They don’t a lot of resources. And so like, our Northstar is like, how do we continue to make it easier, more streamlined. So it’s like there’s a pull to it, and then it just kind of like gets you to the solution, then you can get back to delivering your mission. Right? On the for profit side, I don’t think that that is as much of a an imperative, because they are not as capitally constrained as a nonprofit. But I love having that Northstar, because I’m an Army guy, you know, everything was dummy proof, we called it like, that’s the way we lived right is like, we would have a guide for everything. There would be a Christmas tree card that had like, color coded and like that’s the way and so like, I love that stuff, right? Because that’s true equity, right is when you’re giving people when you’re elevating people, not when you’re artificially creating barriers. And so we’re honored and privileged to have that opportunity to help.
Mallory Erickson 22:51
I love that. And as a habit and behavior designer. The question I’m always asking is how do we make the action easier to do anytime we’re seeing fundraisers, marketers not do something? The question is not like more training, in my opinion, it’s how do we make the action easier to do I love that memory is doing that. Thank you so much for this conversation for your energy. I’m so grateful.
Chris Miano 23:15
Yes, thank you.
Mallory Erickson 23:22
There was so much goodness inside this episode, but here are some of my top takeaways. Number one, embrace the authenticity of stories collected including the arms and ahhs to create a genuine connection with your audience. Number two, encourage storytelling within your organization, focusing on the energy and motion and authenticity behind the stories rather than a perfect narrative. Number three, be mindful of ethical storytelling and know your community when sharing stories, especially when dealing with sensitive topics or vulnerable populations. Number four, include stories from diverse voices and experiences to create a more inclusive and impactful narrative for your organization. And finally, number five, consider sharing stories involving children in a private and ethical manner to create a deeper connection to your audience and ensure respect for the children involved. Okay, for additional takeaways and tips inside this episode, head on over to Mallory erickson.com backslash podcast to grab the full show notes and resources now. You’ll also find more information there about Chris and memory Fox. Thank you for spending this time with us today. If you enjoyed this episode, we would love it if you would give it a rating and review and share it with a friend. I’m so grateful for all of my listeners and the good hard work you’re doing to make our world a better place. And if you miss me between episodes, stop by and say hello on Instagram, under what the fundraising underscore. Have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow for the next episode in this mini series