Are you a Br’er Rabbit Storyteller working with nonprofits?

Project Gutenberg’s Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, by Joel Chandler Harris

I grew up listening to the stories of Uncle Remus about Br’er Rabbit. In case you are not familiar with the character of Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit is a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, provoking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The name “Br’er Rabbit”, a syncope of “Brother Rabbit”, has been linked to both African and Cherokee cultures.

You see the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation. He is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster’s behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb: “It’s trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers.”

Working for Free

There are some very good reasons to work for free or donate your time and resources to a nonprofit organization. Being altruistic is truly the best possible reason to give of your time and resources.

Another great reason to donate is that when you offer to give your storytelling skills to an organization you are more likely to remain more in control of the project and therefore more likely to do your best possible work that you can produce. Many personal projects that I have seen done through my career by photographers were altruistic acts of kindness.

There are countless people who launched their careers by giving away their work for free and using these projects in their portfolios to get work.

I actually do encourage those who have no real portfolio this is the way to build your portfolio. You find something you are passionate about, which often might be something that a nonprofit could use. The advantage of doing this early in your career is they can provide you the access necessary to put together a project that will showcase what you can do for clients in the future.

Almost no one will spend the travel expenses and let alone actually pay someone to produce something if they do not have GREAT examples.

Business Model Changed

There are just a few things that have impacted photographers doing work for nonprofits.

  • Stock Photography—years ago a photographer could go overseas and shoot and then come back and put images into a stock agency and make some pretty good money. It was very common for photos to sell from $350 up to many thousands of dollars. Today with people giving their photos away for free through things like Flicker this has dried up as an income source. It was not uncommon for a photographer long ago to shoot for free and due to the access make money and lots of money from the stock sales later. This revenue stream dried up years ago.
  • Digital—Before digital you had to really know photography skills because you would have to wait till the film was developed to see the results. Now with the LCD on the camera you can see right away and adjust instantly to be sure you have a photo. So where many organizations would pay for a pro just because they needed to know they had photos, but now with digital they just look on the LCD for that confidence.
  • Good Enough—this is what social media has contributed the most to for our industry. People are seeing that OK videos and photos are getting traction and that great photos and videos do not always get more traction for going viral. 
  • Baby Boomers Retiring—many people are retiring and wanting to just donate their time to doing something worthwhile. Most nonprofits are welcoming the volunteers with open arms and enjoying the free rather than worrying about the quality.

What to do & What not to do

When it comes to working with nonprofits I am seeing more and more Br’er Rabbits. A good number of storytellers will contact a nonprofit and even do outstanding work that in the long run doesn’t really help sustain the nonprofit.

I have watched most of my career the demise of professional communicators and especially those in journalism. Loving what we do and feeling called to do it has many of us behaving like Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit represented the enslaved Africans who used their wits to overcome adversity and to exact revenge on their adversaries, the White slave-owners.

I am not seeing anyone planning revenge, however, I am seeing people do just about anything they can to do storytelling.

There are many hobbyist/pros who do not need income from their photography because they make really good money in their full-time jobs. Some of these are even professional communicators who are on staff of a corporation or even a newspaper for example.

There are many people who just love to travel and see the world. They are looking for another stamp of a country they have never been to that they can add to their passport.

What is happening with these people is they are not thinking long-term for the organization they are donating of their time and resources.

Managerial Accounting

I think you need to understand this business concept in order to do the right thing when offering your work for free to an organization.

Too many people see the savings they are providing an organization by donating of their time and resources. This is how financial accounting tracks things, but those organizations that mature over time do not use this method only. They use managerial accounting method in addition for their organization.

       Provides information to make decisions regarding the future
       Relevance of data is emphasized over reliability
       Focuses on timeliness of information
       Reporting is focused on parts of the organization such as departments or      
       divisions and not on the organization as a whole.

Here are just a few things that organizations address due to using managerial accounting procedures:
       1. Just in time inventory
       2. Total quality management
       3. Enterprise resource planning
       4. Supply chain management
       5. Benchmarking

Do you want your donations to an organization to multiply or just help temporarily? Most would want to know they were helping long-term.

Think about each of these when you donate next time to an organization:

  1. Is my donation helping the organization meet it’s mission statement?
  2. When I stop donating is what I am doing for the organization something that they need to continue and pay for this service going forward?
  3. Am I helping educate the organization on how to use my gifts the most effective way possible.
  4. Will you be disappointed if your donation isn’t used?
Storytelling is core to successful organizations
I know that every organization must do effective storytelling of what they are about at the core or they will not be successful. I do not mind donating my time as I choose, but highly resent organizations that expect all storytellers to donate to their organization. 
I believe organizations need to have a budget for their ongoing storytelling. They need to have materials that they can use over and over that help tell their story. They need to tell new stories of how they are continuing to make an impact or sooner or later they will start to die. 
Just like movie studios must continue to come out with a new movie to get people to spend their money to watch, so too must organizations continue to tell their stories or people will stop being apart of their organization. 

Time to Pay for Free

There should come a time in a nonprofit’s growth where they will slowly mature by doing the right things. The day will come when the organization cannot just rely on Free.

I know one organization that has built up and continues today relying predominantly on free and all their staff raise their own support to work for free full-time. When I have worked with them I have been trying to give a presentation and the room I was too use was not useable. Due to improper wiring by free volunteers over the years the rooms were not just unusable but fire hazards.

I couldn’t get the work sent to my email accounts one year because all the free IT support didn’t wire their campus properly.

Even Habitat for Humanity knows it must rely on professional electricians and plumbers to meet code for their homes.  Maybe more organizations need to realize their really is a code standard for good communication.

Here is the bottom line for organizations that do not create a plan to budget for storytelling.

Organizations that continue to go to professional communicators asking for free and never budget for communications never mature.

Thought I would end with the sunset.