The power of storytelling with Danielle Kristine Toussaint

Partner Spotlight | Blog | 7 min.
Written By: Kelsey Thompson | Posted On: 02/24/2021

Reimagining solutions to today’s biggest challenges takes bold disruptors and innovative changemakers. Finding those disruptors and changemakers and investing in their ideas is at the heart of the Morgridge Family Foundation’s mission. 

We recently caught up with one of those disruptors, Danielle Kristine Toussaint. Danielle is the inaugural Morgridge Communicator-in-Residence for Ascend at the Aspen Institute as well as an author, founder and thought leader. We chatted about communicating effectively during our current times, the wisdom imparted in her newly released book, and what trends she expects to see in the future of giving and social entrepreneurship. 


On being a communicator and storyteller in unprecedented times

A lifelong storyteller with extensive experience in the world of social enterprise and nonprofits, Danielle is excited by the opportunities for storytelling and deeper communication that this moment in history presents. 

As Danielle put it, “This is absolutely a moment when the world needs to turn to storytellers. There’s so much power in making connections through narrative, and storytelling is one of the ways that we allow both our hearts and our minds to process and get excited about information. Communication and storytelling is a beautiful instrument for a moment where there’s so much social, political, economic tumult. I really want to help people think differently, be more hopeful, and find solutions.”

She’s right – storytelling is more important than ever. There is evidence that effective storytelling can help in fighting the spread of COVID-19 and online disinformation, in healing social and political rifts, and in addressing the issues raised by protests on race and privilege in society. 

How? In part, through a phenomenon called transportation – the feeling of getting so lost in a narrative that you hardly notice the world around you. Researchers at Ohio State found that when a reader feels transported by a story, they are more likely to relate to the protagonist and embrace the beliefs and messaging the story presents. In other words, when done right, storytelling has the power to help us connect and empathize with each other.

On her work for Ascend at the Aspen Institute and standing out 

In her role as the Morgridge Communicator-in-Residence for Ascend at the Aspen Institute, Danielle helps people to think differently and find solutions. Her work at Ascend focuses on promoting executive communications and their “Two Generations, One Future” initiatives that use a two-generation approach to move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. 

“It’s been an incredible experience,” said Danielle, “And I think what’s made it special has been the energy from MFF around their investment. There’s been so much camaraderie and interest and support that’s come from the foundation to ensure that I’m successful.

“The biggest opportunity at Ascend,” she continued, “is that we have so much information, so much rich data, so many wonderful community connections and a wealth of stories. The Ascender story is inherently an American story. There’s always been the notion that in America anyone can surmount their circumstances and create a different, better future. Ascender stories show how to do so despite the unique barriers some people face to achieving that dream.”

Danielle’s work is not only centered around telling those stories, but showing how those stories and opportunities to ascend can be more equitable.

Specifically, Danielle and the Ascend team are working to launch new and more visible storytelling platforms – think podcasts and live video – to facilitate community conversations and discussions that take their abundant research and make it feel real and relevant. By disseminating those stories and starting new conversations, Ascend will not only help individuals take action but drive systems and policy change and elevate solutions to multi-generational poverty. 

Another tool in the Ascend team’s arsenal, Danielle explained, is partnership. 

“We’re not in this conversation by ourselves. There are dozens of organizations and hundreds of people across the Ascend partner network that are doing this work,” she said. “And so the strategies that we’re looking at right now allow us to partner with our funders, engage with our network partners, collaborate with other brands and create content in a way that’s cross promotional.”


On her book, Dare to Think Purple

Prior to joining the team at Ascend, Danielle was the founder and chief storyteller at She Thinks Purple, a women-powered creative agency that partners with social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders to tell inspiring brand stories. Her experiences with impact-driven women inspired Danielle to compile their stories, wisdom and lessons into a book. 

Described as a “survival guide for women in social entrepreneurship”, Dare to Think Purple takes a unique and valuable approach to dispensing advice.

Danielle described the book as focused on “the rules of daring– which are things like how to get clear before you even start, how to be confident, how to be creative, build community, and, ultimately, be courageous in your efforts.” She goes beyond that, though, by laying out seven “cheat codes” that, if learned and implemented upfront, can save women changemakers much-needed time and energy. 

“I really focus on the stuff that people don’t like to talk about, which is hitting that wall right around year two, when you wonder if you should just quit because it’s not going the way you planned. I focus on being female and navigating things like your own health and well-being or societal things like uneven expectations, and how to talk about those challenges and how they show up in your work.”

Dare to Think Purple shows, once again, how Danielle has her finger on the pulse of current events and trends.

In December of 2020, 140,000 jobs were lost– all of which were held by women. Of the net 9.8 million jobs lost in 2020 as a whole, almost 5.4 million were held by women. In short, the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact has been borne by women, and especially women of color. It’s not hard to see why inspiration, advice, and stories of impact and success are so important.

“To me, that is the power of daring to think purple. It’s bringing your most courageous and creative mind to solving social problems, paying attention to the people around you who are going through some of the same things, and learning from them. When we mine our own stories for solutions, we are building on what we know works, because these are real people’s lives and they’ve already shown us the way.”


On the future of giving and social entrepreneurship

Given Danielle’s instincts for spotting trends and addressing societal needs, we asked her what she sees coming in the future of giving and social entrepreneurship. Her response was too good to abbreviate:

“When I read the MFF and sparks&honey report, The Future of Giving, it truly felt like the report captured what I had been feeling and what those of us who do impact-driven marketing campaigns have been saying. Youth voice and culture is going to drive and influence everything, a majority millennial workforce is shifting perceptions and expectations of CEOs and brands, and even if you aren’t a social enterprise, you still have to think like one because your consumers care about how your organization impacts the world. 

I’m encouraged that we’re talking about diversity and inclusion and equity and representation, but it’s not enough. Our challenge now is to ask, ‘Where are the success stories?’ We need to shine the spotlight on the leading-edge organizations who are getting it right and getting results. We can go beyond talking about problems and make a difference.

Here is where folks like me, the communicators and the storytellers, get to really help. We can shape a conversation about the type of society we want to live in and how we will leave the world better than we found it. If we don’t want to accept the legacies that have been passed down, it’s up to us to create new ones. I believe it all starts with the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible.”

Join Danielle and Anne Mosle, vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, in their upcoming book talk all about Dare to Think Purple and leadership lessons. The event is hosted by the Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls to kick off Women’s History Month. Register here.