MTV’s Nonprofit Makeover – The Power of Social Storytelling

by Chanel Cathey, Viacom

In a recent article, “Before And After: How MTV Gave One Nonprofit A Makeover And Got Schooled In Social Storytelling,” Fast Company spotlighted how MTV and skilled volunteerism-match platform Catchafire partnered to find a nonprofit in need of a “makeover,” for which MTV would lend its expertise in marketing, branding and social media.

The idea originated with MTV President Stephen Friedman, who wanted to fully leverage MTV’s creative talent and storytelling capabilities to benefit an especially worthy nonprofit in a meaningful way. Catchafire issued a call for submissions and MTV chose to work with The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit that offers comprehensive job services to the previously incarcerated. While you can learn a lot about how this nonprofit collaboration started from reading the article, I sat down with two key members on this makeover SWAT team, MTV’s Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Jason Rzepka and Lauren Epstein, Vice President of On-Air Promo Strategy to take a closer look at the three-month makeover.

Nonprofits of varying missions and sizes applied for the opportunity to have MTV in house to revamp their marketing, communications and creative assets like videos and brochures. Catchafire helped identify and streamline interested nonprofits, and MTV ultimately had to choose one organization from the extensive candidate pool to work with.

“If we did this process with an organization that was too small it could be overkill,” Rzepka said. “They may not be in a position to operationalize what we would give them, so it was really trying to find a mid-tier nonprofit that was doing great work but needed help getting to the next level through their marketing, through their storytelling, through branding – all those things that we’re really good at.”

With so many nonprofits falling into that mid-tier category, MTV also focused considerable attention on the organization’s mission and need during the decision-making process. Founded in 1996, CEO specializes in employment services for those released primarily from NY prisons / detention facilities – in the last decade CEO made more than 10,000 job placements. CEO’s mission and work really struck a cord with the MTV staff, as the brand’s pro-social strategy seeks to engage audiences and create conversations about critical issues like recidivism, which Rzepka said was a particularly ripe issue, since most people don’t think about it at all.

“Most people don’t think about prisoners,” Rzepka said. “The way we jail people is totally broken.  And the way we support those who have been to jail is totally absent. Here is an organization that’s doing very thankless, really incredible work on that exactly and it touches other issues like the safety of communities, joblessness, how we spend taxpayers’ dollars and much more.”

Inspired by the organizational vision and the staff’s commitment to create opportunities, MTV’s makeover team gained a lot from meetings, onsite visits, sitting in on job training classes and connecting with program participants. Lauren Epstein reiterated the importance of embedding the MTV staff into the organization to really understand the immediate versus long-term needs.

“The work is delving deep and exploring who they are, what their inherent challenges are, what are things that we need to showcase that haven’t been showcased prior,” said Lauren Epstein.  “All of that involves conversation, involves visits, involves auditing everything about the company and building in that time is as important for the work as making the work itself.”

What really differentiated this collaboration was the intense focus on storytelling. MTV might be onto something given the competitive donor environment and the growing number of nonprofits nationwide: it’s more important than ever for nonprofits to effectively communicate their story. In response, MTV brought together those with expertise in marketing strategy, storytelling content, social media and graphic design to revamp CEO’s overall package. Epstein told us:

“Really story-telling is the umbrella component of everything that we do and everything that we provide from a marketing perspective.  On the storytelling side we really wanted to create some kind of toolkit for CEO which would be a variety of items that they can use and pull out of their arsenal depending on who they were talking too.  That included a revised mission statement.  It had an elevator pitch so a quick summary of what it is they do and their mission that was directed to different targets.  We also created a video piece with an easy clear introduction of what it is that CEO does and how they do it.”

This collaboration really inspired MTV and there is an appetite for more projects like this in the future. With skill matched volunteerism trending, employees at companies around the globe are looking for ways to give back and plug into organizations to make an impact.

“Given the staff response and MTV’s ongoing commitment to effecting positive change, there’s definitely going to be more – so stay tuned,” Rzepka said. “We do feel that skilled volunteerism is an important trend.  If you go back to the business rationale, I think the big reason for us to do this – in addition to it being the right thing to do – is that Millennials demand these kinds of opportunities.  They are looking for these types of opportunities when they decide who they want to work for.  I think we need to have programs like this as recruitment tools, as retainment tools, so that we’re tracking to young employees’ passions.”

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  1. As the Chief of External and Legislative Affairs for the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) our ” makeover ” is what dreams are made off. The MTV team invested their time, creative talent, expertise, and passion to our mission and created tangible assets that has not only helped tell our story more effectively but also attracted increased support in the work that we do. Thanks MTV !!

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