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.)