Understanding Helpers: from folklore to nonprofits

Before you can defeat a dragon, you need some help. Everyone seems to understand the idea of the helper in a narrative as a figure that the hero encounters on their journey. The helper helps the hero, sometimes through an outright gift but, often, as a reward for some relatively small kindness that the hero rendered to the helper well before the hero knew that this figure might offer such rewards. But how much do we ever really know about the helper? And how might that relate to the helping work of nonprofit organizations?

Take the Russian tale of Vasilisa. At the house of the evil witch Baba Yaga, Vasilisa is kind to the hungry cat, so the cat gives her a ribbon and a comb. When she is making her escape from the witch, she throws the ribbon behind her and it turns into a river, then she throws the comb behind and it turns into a thick forest. Vasilisa had her instructions to throw the ribbon and comb behind her, but she did not have any way of knowing that the cat's gifts would save her life.

At other times, the helper is even more secretive about their identity, and the gifts they might bestow take a long time to become evident. In a more complex version, the goddess Hera takes the form of an old woman. When Jason, hero of the Argonauts, helps her by carrying her across the river, he loses one of his sandals. The lost sandal is Hera's blessing because its absence marks him to King Pelias as the legitimate successor to the throne.

In one straightforward version, good is rewarded and bad is punished. In the folktale Diamonds and Toads, an apparent beggar woman is really a fairy in disguise. Two daughters come upon her and treat her kindly and cruelly, in accordance with their own characters. The kind daughter is blessed with speaking in diamonds and rubies, while the cruel daughter is cursed with speaking in toads. The idea that who we really are comes out when there's no apparent reward for kindness or generosity is both very old and continually reworked. There's even a modern TV trope of the secret test of a character's moral conviction, and the beggar disguise is a subset of this test. Thompson classified this motif as N825.3.1. Help from old beggar woman.

Still, it's amazing how little we know about these helper figures. They arrive, they seem to need the hero's help, but they give something much more valuable in return. Then they disappear from the narrative. We are so focused on the hero that it can be difficult to keep the helper in our minds once we are beyond them in the story.

This is how it is with helping organizations like nonprofits. When we try to tell the stories of, say, incredible libraries or amazing educational programs, we need heroes. Heroes show us what these organizations can really do, not by waiting to help people, but by bestowing gifts that go well beyond what the hero expected to receive. Non-profits matter when they make an impact on a person's life. 

When you work in libraries or other institutional contexts, chances are good that you've tried to tell a library-as-hero story. The reason that so rarely works is that libraries are, archetypally, not heroes but helpers. It's not only easier but also better to situate the library where it belongs, as a valuable helper whose gifts go far beyond what might be expected. A way to approach this might be to think back to the cat's gift of the ribbon-turned-river. When does a library provide resources that allow someone to apply for and ultimately get a job? The way a job application on a public computer turns into a life-changing employment opportunity is all about the hero and what the hero does to bring that opportunity to life. But the library is still part of the story, as the friendly cat who rewards kindness with a seemingly simple gift that expands to be life-saving.

Nonprofit stories should focus on the role of organization as helper. The brighter the hero shines in a story, the more important audiences know that helper figure to be. What was difficult to keep in our minds becomes easier to think and talk about when the non-profit takes up its rightful archetypal place. When we look for nonprofit stories, it's always tempting to try to tell something about the place, space, or staff, when in fact its more productive to talk about the people who benefit.

Animal shelters know this. They rarely focus on themselves or their facilities (or the tragic overpopulation of animals). Instead, they focus on the lives changed, human and animal, when a pet finds their person and a person finds their pet. Not all cats bestow magic ribbons and combs, but all nonprofits can benefit from taking their place as helper and telling the stories of the heroes that they help.

(With thanks to Daphne Bechrakis for editing, and Franklin Kramer, Will Davenport, and the iSchool Help Desk staff for brainstorming helper stories.)

Teaching Storytelling: Example Assignments

In a short paper for the journal Education for Information, called "Storytelling as Non-Textual Pedagogy," I describe some of my course themes, related assignments, and assessments for those assignments. This blog post offers a quick look at three of the assignments for my storytelling courses to augment that forthcoming paper.

Three assignments:
1. Future File assignment
2. Storytelling in Professions paper
3. Storytelling apps posting

1. Future File assignment

Your future file is a long-term tool for you in your career as a storyteller. During the semester, you should read as many stories as possible from various genres and cultures. Keep a file of those stories you might like to tell, including folktales, picture book texts, personal tales, fairy tales, myths and legends, and selections from contemporary literature. These might be stories you forsee using in the future for library programs, curriculum enrichment, literacy promotion at festivals, or stories that you can’t yet forsee how or where you might use but want to keep. 

Your file may be a simple word document, a blog, wiki, or other database as long as it is easily readable by the instructors. The file should consist of 20 or more entries and be approximately 20-30 pages in length (about one page per entry, 12pt font, single or double-spaced). Each story entry should use the following form:

   --Title of story
   --Source(s) where found (in MLA citation style, which you can find online)
   --Summary of story (one paragraph or a brief outline of story events)
   --Cultural origins information and research: source notes in the text, information in the story, information found in other sources about the story, etc.  How would these cultural origins relate to, limit, or otherwise influence your introduction or telling strategies?
   --Your audience ideas, including your best thoughts on an appropriate age range and best-case audience settings: school, library, museum, etc.  How would variations in the audience composition and location influence your telling of this story?
   --Your adaptation ideas, including notes on what to do/what not to do, voices you might use, choruses for group participation, tone of telling, etc.  How would you take this story and make it your own, stylistically or in terms of content?  Stylistically, what tone would you express through this story?  In terms of content, how is this story meaningful to you, and how might you convey that to the audience?
Excellent future files will:
-include an introduction to the whole file describing your intended audience
-display professional writing (use complete sentences throughout) consisting of complete entries (elements above accurately and thoughtfully given for each entry)
-demonstrate an effort to include variety in your choice of stories in the file, including variety of tone, cultural sources, and age appeal

2. Storytelling in Professions paper

Your goal in this 4-6 page paper (12pt font double-spaced or 1,200-1,800 words, not including references) will be to construct an argument about the uses of storytelling, as a practice in libraries or other information organizations or education institutions.  Your argument will be based on 3-5 published articles (or book chapters) from either scholarly or practice-based literature.  Your initial literature searches might include terms such as "story," "tell," "story time," "digital storytelling," "storyteller," etc.  After doing some initial searching, focus on one practice of storytelling and identify 3-5 articles on this practice.  

Examples of practices include: 
 storytelling in museums; storytelling at national parks or monuments; storytelling in classrooms, libraries, or both); storytelling at the National Storytelling Festival or other festivals; storytelling in business or corporate settings; digital storytelling for urban youth; and professional storytellers' performances.  

Excellent papers will:
-develop an argument about the use of storytelling in the practice of your choice, with a questioning approach toward the articles you selected
-describe and/or compare how storytelling is used/understood in these practices or in the articles you have chosen
-analyze the evidence from your articles as to how/whether storytelling is effective (and whether you agree or have questions about the evidence)

3. Storytelling apps posting

Download and evaluate any storytelling app of your choice.  In your posting, describe this app and evaluate it.  What does this app do, who is its audience, and how does it relate to storytelling?  Does it create a story, support storytelling, or inspire creativity in some way?  Is it effective, and why or why not?

Story Before Storage

"Story before storage" has become my catchphrase for addressing a big issue with nonprofit data. In my consulting work, I've seen this problem over and over in data collection approaches used by nonprofits. The problem is that nonprofits are collecting and storing data that they have never told as a story or used to connect with stakeholders.

When we say "data-driven decision making," there is an implication that the data tells the story, that all our stakeholders need is access to the complete data and they will be able to see our story. This is as ineffective as imagining that all someone needs to understand how to operate complex machinery is a detailed diagram of the engine, gears, and pedals. At worst, we collect data, maybe make some decisions, and then store it without ever telling the story of why we made those decisions based on that data. When you move from data collection to storage without letting it inform a story that your stakeholders can see and hear, in a form that makes sense to everyday people, you are putting storage before story. The solution is to put story before storage. Putting story before storage means both acknowledging that data does not come with its own story as well as a commitment to making sure that the meaning derived from data collection helps nonprofits make connections.

Sometimes we imagine that we are doing what is "obvious" based on data or, put another way, we hold a fantasy that data can make decisions for us. We think all we have to do is collect it, and then we have the answers. The problem is that this approach completely neglects what makes data meaningful. Data becomes meaningful in direct relationship to the questions we ask to collect it. It becomes effective communication when we craft well-evidenced stories about what it means. Storytelling involves a three-part relationship between the teller, audience, and story. Handing an uninterpreted spreadsheet to our stakeholders-as-audience and expecting them to glean the meaning for themselves is irresponsible, because it abdicates our relationship to the audience as storytellers and leaves them not only confused but also uncertain about whose perspective the data represents. Telling the story also makes it clear who could answer questions--the storyteller.
But there's more than that to the problem, and more to be gained from putting story before storage. Let's say that you work for a nonprofit organization that serves the public. In order to assess how well you are doing, you periodically ask for input from the public--your audience--that you collect and then aggregate as data in order to generate an understanding of how well you are meeting your goals. I advocate putting story before storage because your first obligation is to give back to your audience, to tell the story of the data you have collected.  When you tell the data as story to your stakeholders, you acknowledge their input, honoring the relationship that allowed you to collect some of your data from them. Your stakeholders deserve an opportunity to know not only that you are assessing your services, but also how their data was meaningful to your story of that assessment. Fundamentally, most public-facing nonprofit organizations need stakeholders--both clients and supporters, or taxpayers and staff or board members--to understand what you are doing and, hopefully, to remain in support of giving you their data, time, money, and more.

When you ask people for data, you ask them to tell you something. Maybe it's not a story, maybe it's just a series of clicks in response to questions. No matter how big or small, when you collect data from people you have an opportunity to connect with them more deeply, as the audience members and co-creators of your ongoing mutually beneficial story. You can connect by telling them what you learned, partly from them, about the work you are trying to accomplish and how well your services are working.

The impact of data is only as effective as the story you tell about it, so put story before storage. Do it for the relationships it helps to foster, the ongoing community collaborations you need, and for the sake of future opportunities for new stakeholders to connect with your organization. Don't stop with data storage; your job isn't done until you've used data to tell a story. That way, you've stored the meaning that allows those who come after you to understand why you made the decisions you did.