"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Storytelling Nonprofits in a Changing World

Dedication and thanks goes to Anthony Radich, Executive Director of the Western States Arts Federation (Westaf), for giving permission to post the picture of us as well as to apply his workshop session “The New World of the Nonprofit Arts: Adapting to a Shifting Landscape” to storytelling nonprofits on May 9, 2008.

Technology and social trends have changed the environment for the average nonprofit organization so that members within these groups must decide to either continue with standard procedures or to merge with new tools and structures available. Storytelling nonprofits share the same decision.

The National Storytelling Network (NSN), one of the largest storytelling nonprofits with 2,600+ members, has announced the need to make major changes for the first time since the 1973 creation of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. This is not to say that new programs and ideas were never implemented in the last few decades. However, technology or out-of-the-box thinking were never fully embraced by the membership or by the Board besides the basic website and a few member grants.

When Dianne de Las Casas started the Professional Storyteller social networking site, the amount of members surged to over 350 in three months. Dianne was surprised by the rapid growth and wondered what other possibilities could be unlocked from this group.

Some people grumbled that the NSN stamp was not to be found on Professional Storyteller despite the fact that a NSN member created it. These people talked as if NSN had to be the leader of any progress-moving idea versus being a participant in it.

However, the online world is not the place for any one storytelling nonprofit or for any one nonprofit for that matter. The Internet has global impact and could build collaboration rather than strictly self-promotion, whether of individuals or organizations.

Almost in response, the NSN Board took a big yet simple step in creating a forum and a blog to promote open communication on issues and concerns. Few members know of its existence, though slowly the site and activity grows. The features available are limited, though actions are being taken to make it more inviting.

With perceptions of NSN fighting to stay alive (as most nonprofits do nowadays), perhaps the Board falls under the “Heroic Model”. Anthony Radich, Executive Director of the Western States Arts Federation, warned against this model as he believed it to be prevalent with most struggling nonprofits.

Common traits of the “Heroic Model”:
• Highly Orthodox
• Based on Classical Management Theory
• Mechanistic in Character
• Dominant
• Guilt Producing

Compare to what Radich called “Functional Success Model”:
• Functions are more important than process used
• Regular negotiations regarding how coalition will accomplish functions
• Flexibility in approach is highly valued

With the “Functional Success Model”, Radich explained that people on the Board could still have titles and be over certain areas though people could, at any time, switch duties depending on strengths.

He urged nonprofits to be aware of the ways people enjoy art in determining how to evolve the nonprofit structure. The Board model may need a mix of the “Heroic Model” as well as the “Functional Success Model”.

Radich commented, “People are not always willing to go to a building in the old way that opens at 8:00am and closes at 5:00pm.” Whether this applies to offices or to events put on by nonprofits, it certainly shakes the need of a physical place and tests the flexibility of any organization as often shown in the “Functional Success Model”. Radich did not suggest to get rid of the nonprofit’s location, though an open mind for having a stronger Internet presence could reach potential members, sponsors and new audiences.

People have the same level of interest today in the arts as was found in the 1960s and 1970s when the “socio-cultural inertia” started, resulting in new programs and grants. Attendance is down for many symphony concerts, theatre shows, and storytelling performances. As a result, interest seems invisible because people enjoy their arts beyond the traditional “Let’s go to the theatre” attitude.

Radich warned, “If the only metric used to gage success of your event is in how many are sitting in the seats, then you are in trouble.” This comment assumed that at least one tool like webcasting, podcasting or blogging were used to broadcast or display art beyond the building. (Explore the site The 59 Smartest Orgs Online put out by Squido.) Otherwise, counting people in their seats would be the only statistic for nonprofits to report when writing grants.

To determine the 59 Smartest ones, Squido asked the following questions:
1. What does the org's website look like?
2. Does it just ask for donations?
3. Do they have a way for members to share their stories?
3. Do they have lenses or Groups on Squidoo?
4. Do they have MySpace groups?
5. You Tube videos?
6. Flickr sets?
7. Do they value microdonations or only $1000 and more?
8. Do they run contests or challenges to engage their members?
9. Do they send out weekly or monthly newsletters?
10. Do they have RSS feeds?
11. Are people blogging about the org?
12. Are they stuck in the land of direct mail, control, and offline fundraising?
13. Are they optimized for the new cadre of young philanthropists?

After reviewing the technology and Board structure possibilities, the nonprofit may consider another way to label itself:
• For-profit Organization
The profits become more important than the social, cultural, and/or political causes.
• Temporary Advocacy Organization
If a particular project is needed, then a group is formed with the knowledge that it will be disbanded as soon as the goals are met such as in two, three, or more years.
• Cooperative
Controlled and owned by all members and they act as creators and consumers of any products or projects.
• Venture Capital Approach
Tends to have a group of wealthy individuals who finance ventures and have greater say in the future of the group as well as taking on any risks or successes.
• Nonprofit with a For-profit Subsidiary
Allows for the group to participate in moneymaking ventures, especially when significant profits are expected, that may or may not relate to its main purpose.
• Out-of-Business
Doors are closed and the group “dies” and may be reborn in the future.

As a National Storytelling Network member, I prefer the Nonprofit with a For-profit Subsidiary structure. We have causes that benefit our communities as well as services that people would be willing to pay for to keep programs running.

If the National Storytelling Network developed a storytelling library/museum of world-class renown, a gift shop or rental of computer equipment to stream live storytelling performances, then we would have other forms of revenue and not have to rely as heavily on membership dues and conference attendance.

Check out the article "Four Reasons Why You Should Consider a For-Profit Subsidiary" by NFP News.

Whatever is decided, I agree with Radich when he said, “Learn from the Past. Operate in the Present. Imagine the Future.”

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799

***Several comments have been made to this post at Professional Storyteller. Click here to read them.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Receiving Rate vs. "Starving Artist" Syndrome

Sweat trickles or teeth clatter for some professional storytellers when they are asked, “How much do you charge?”

Either the traditional path of the “starving artist” could be taken or the more self-respecting road of the financially independent.

Which road do you choose?

Ways to Combat “Starving Artist” Syndrome:
1. Polish your craft
2. Decide now what you want (as well as for exceptions)
3. Ask questions before giving rate
4. Speak with firm and confident voice (with pause)
5. Assume the positive

Polish your craft
The first storytelling gig you ever do will probably not be paid. It may go for the second, third, fourth and so on. This is fine, and even encouraged, for every storyteller needs to have some sort of apprenticeship time.

Recently I was asked what my training was as a storyteller. Sometimes I say, “Do you want the short or long answer?” I could spout things such as I started as a sophomore in high school and competed in the art. If the person opts for the long answer, I may share how my first story was a failure but I made a promise to prove to myself that I was a great storyteller. I could also delve into the how and why I started the Brigham Young University Storytelling Club or my venture of working on my Storytelling Masters program at East Tennessee State University.

My favorite answer is usually, “My mom said I was a storyteller as soon as I opened my mouth.”
No matter what examples are shared, the important part is that there is continual polishing of the craft and professional development.

The “starving artist” tends to forget all the training they went through to be who they are today. They are nervous to charge what they ought to charge because they ask themselves “Am I worth it?” If you happen to fall in this slump, then brainstorm a list of how you have improved yourself through the years.

Some ideas:
  • Telling at places (this could be a few pages already)
  • Attending storytelling and art conferences

  • Receiving time from coaches/mentors

  • Participating in local, regional, national, or international storytelling organizations

  • Pursuing higher education in your field

  • Researching stories and techniques at the library or other resource places

  • Decide now what you want (as well as for exceptions)
    Every so often the sponsor’s budget will fall short of your quoted rate. Figure out what amount is the lowest you would accept as well as what you would refuse.

    The artist inside the professional storyteller has a tendency to want to say “yes” to everything, which is part of the “starving artist” syndrome. I cringe when experienced tellers disrespect themselves by taking $25 or $50 for what could have easily been 10 times or more that amount. This could be the result of craving the stage and putting that love for it above the money to cover the costs we entail from each performance such as research, practice, travel, etc.

    At the same time, have you noticed how easy children are at saying “no”? Most likely they had parents, teachers, and other adults tell them “no” so many times that this answer naturally comes out of their mouth first. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood the “yes” word dominates our vocabulary.

    For example, let us say that someone can pay $250 out of your normal $300 rate. Some storytellers would be tempted to take the $250 and not say anything more. Yet, $50 is still missing. Before you get in this kind of situation—and you will many times—you need to brainstorm in-kind or service solutions.

    If in-kind or service solutions do not interest you, then this may be a gig in which you walk away. Storyteller Bill Harley has often said that you know you are a professional when you can say “no”.

    Not all budgets that fall short are bad. You may be surprised at how other types of payment could benefit you. Depending on what service or in-kind item is offered, I may indicate on my service agreement that I want at least half the payment to be in cash to cover my costs.

    Some venues have offered family passes for their places. Tellers with children may jump at these opportunities. Perhaps these tellers would also delight in trading for some free babysitting hours.

    Brainstorm your “power perks” beyond cash.

    These are some of mine and how I generally value them:

  • Research assistance for finding folktale variants ($20/hour--so if short $100 of my price, I would get 5 hours of research on top of the cash)
  • Office work such as stuffing envelopes, updating contacts, etc. ($10/hour)

  • Letters of recommendation (roughly $1 per contact, usually maxing at $50)

  • Books (retail value compared to my rate)

  • Home improvement gift cards (equal to my rate)

  • Business/Marketing/Skills training (equal trade of time)

  • With your list developed before sponsors call, you will be ready to offer suggestions if they are slightly off in their budgets. Whatever is decided, make a note in your service agreement. Then everyone will remember what was agreed and you have a win-win situation.

    Ask questions before giving rate
    Besides knowing the types of stories you like to tell, one of the first questions is “What is your rate?”

    If I am at a social event like through a Chamber of Commerce and the person generally wants a number, I state my hourly rate without going into details except to say that the rate is based on length of performance/workshop as well distance from my home. The person may simply want to know to budget accordingly in the future.

    Many times a specific event is implied, especially when a rough date or theme is given. Then I stall in stating my rate. I acknowledge that I will answer the rate question, though I would like to find out some things first.

    I gage by their vocal tone and/or body language as to how long I could ask questions to determine their expectations and needs. This reveals my professional side to the potential sponsor. Since they see that I want to have their event be as successful as possible, they are more likely to want to hire me when I give my rate afterwards regardless of what they had originally planned for their budget.

    Speak with firm and confident voice (with pause)
    Stating your rate should be just that—a statement.

    The “starving artist” has a waver to the voice that always ends in a question mark. Whenever a potential sponsor hears that tone, they know they can ask for a lower rate and be likely to receive it from you. Most people are in search of a good deal. However, this does not have to cut into your living as a professional storyteller.

    Say your fee in a few words. Memorize the phrase. If applicable, make constant eye contact. Then pause. Keep looking at them. You did your part and now it is up to the sponsor to respond. Give them time to assess how you could work within their budget.

    Assume the positive
    There are performance queries that have said “We don’t have much in our budget” or “We are non-profit”. The “starving artist” may take these words, turn pessimistic and assume payment of $25 or $50. When it comes to quoting rates, this kind of artist may chop from their normal fee before the potential sponsor has a chance to say what these statements really mean.

    If I see or hear such phrases, I ignore them. I state my fees and then ask, “What is your budget?”

    I had one government preschool group that claimed to have little budget. When I gave my fee, the lady on the phone had a smile in her voice and said, “I thought it would be more. We can afford you!”

    I have had other venues with “little budget” that talked to several storytellers asking for rates. Most, if not all the tellers had shared lower fees than me. Despite this difference, many times I received the gig. Perhaps asking questions and finding more about their event before committing helped. Whatever the reason, my fee did not faze them.

    So as another person asks your rate, be true to yourself and send the "starving artist" on the opposite road you are taking.

    Until we tell again,

    Rachel Hedman
    Professional Storyteller
    Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
    (801) 870-5799