"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.


Sean said...

Oh, Rachel. A museum? Really? Ow. Otherwise congrats on this post- turn them wheels. That's a good thing.

Connecting Stories said...

Thank you! This is an amazing piece and speaks "to the condition of many" as the Quakers used to say. I have posted it at LANES.org listserv and posted a link to it at massmouth,http://massmouth.blogspot.com/ where we are trying to light a fire where we started to Share the Fire, 30 years ago. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You said it all and so well. Norah Dooley