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  • Loren Niemi

On Becoming Board Chair


I have been asked and said yes to returning to the National Storytelling Network’s Board of Directors. Not only returning but also serving as the Board Chair. This will be my second time as a Board member and as the Chair.


A bit of History

This first time was 1999 – 2004, back in the days when the NSN was newly separated from what is now the International Storytelling Center (ISC). It was, what Ed Stivender called “the divorce - Daddy (Jimmy Neil Smith) got the House and Mom (Nancy Kavanaugh and every Board Chair after) got the kids.”


The task at that time was to figure out what being a membership organization meant. That is still the task. It was during this time that NSN created the JJ Reneaux and Brimstone grants programs. It was the time of beginning for the Special interest Groups (SIGs). It was the time when the storytelling revival was in full flower and NSN jointly owned the National Storytelling Festival.


It was before ISC declared bankruptcy to avoid having to pay off their multi-million dollar Dept of Agriculture loans. I had already served two terms and left the Board by time a bankruptcy judge severed NSN’s ownership of the Festival and the guaranteed revenue that came with that ownership.


Once that ownership was severed, there was no reason to stay in Jonesborough though it took another six years of searching and debating the wisdom and cost of a move before NSN arrived in Kansas City.


It is helpful to acknowledge that history. Pro and con - as to the “divorce”, the move, and the changing culture of storytelling – it is important to acknowledge that NSN is a member organization in which many members have strong ties and emotions with that history.


My Analysis of the Challenge Before Us

In coming to NSN’s Board of Directors now, I see that given the challenges and opportunities before NSN, there are three options on the table. Let’s look at what I think each is and requires.


Organizational growth.

We have been trying this one for a decade now with little success. Why? The fundamental question is and always has been what do we offer as a membership organization to potential members? Is a magazine, member grants, recognition via awards, a conference or special interest groups enough or the “right” benefits?

- Are or have these benefits been sufficient to offset the historical number of members who had joined because they felt good about storytelling when they attended the national festival and left because they felt bad about the “divorce”?

- Are these enough to offset the aging of the membership and subsequent diminishment of financial capacity to pay dues or attend conferences?

- Are these what the Millennial generation who came to storytelling via the Moth and personal story want? There is little evidence that they are.


For starters many of those largely younger "personal tellers" I have talked to want NSN to be much more welcoming than they have felt. Beyond feeling they are not intruders at someone else’s party, they want recognition of their experience, networked connections, (relevant) podcasts, hands-on and remote learning, and opportunities to perform. On one level it is the same things those who are members now wanted when they joined back in the day but it is likely that we will have to make a number of program choices to make the organization relevant to a digital native generation.


There is a value in rethinking what growing a national membership organization means. Who do we want to belong? What do we charge for what? What is core to membership, what is worth an added cost? Right now the SIGs are an added cost. Should a print magazine be one as well? Is the conference worth the cost to produce or attend?


To grow the organization will require three to five years of concentrated effort of asking and listening to those who are not members and then crafting something to offer that will attract and retain new members. What that something is and whom it is for requires a more specific and sustained planning than announcing as we have in the past “each one, reach one”....


That growth time line could be sped up if we merged with another spoken word or arts service based organization but I have no idea what other organization would want to merge with us. And again the question would be, what do we offer them in a merger? What does each party gain for growing their membership and “brand”?


Reorganization.

In part we are where we are because membership has never been sufficient to sustain the organization. When NSN created we had a guaranteed income of 18% of the gross from our joint ownership the Festival. That averaged $150K and was the price of not doing the festival programming. When the International Storytelling Center declared bankruptcy and got a judge to end our ownership, that money went away and we have been spending against the surplus that we had at the time of the severance.


We are a membership organization because we have been one. The question (again) is what does membership mean or offer and at what price? The question is how do we raise funds beyond what membership dues, an annual conference or donation campaign that is focused on the same audience brings in? What do we offer those who are not members that would warrant contribution or purchase?


NSN does not really have (sell) products. The conference is not marketed as a product for the larger population (and I am not sure it can be as a membership based and focused conference). Unlike the ISC or the Moth we do not sell performances. We do not sell training. We do not sell downloadable podcasts or webinars or books (that we publish or co-publish and distribute through Ted Parkhurst or another publisher). We do not sell a national touring program. We do not sell booking agent or producer services. We do not sell a national radio show (that we produce or could partner with to produce). In theory we could do any of these things to bring in earned or sponsored income. Some would be easy, some hard, all require a shift in our programming.

In part we do not do these things because the philosophy that undergirds NSN as a member organization has been equality/egalitarianism. We keep thinking that what is good for one must be good for all. Most of those products require a measure of quality/professionalism that requires a producer to say yes to one and no to another. Even if we are growing storytellers, we need to have a path that rewards skill and content quality.


Likewise we have this unspoken ethos that either everyone gets paid or everyone performs for “free”. In choosing to reorganize our programming to create marketable product, we will need to do what the Moth does not do - pay storytellers for the content and production of product and find ways to make it accessible to a diverse membership.


One version of reorganization would be to identify one or more products and market them outside of the membership. Where is a need that NSN can fill using and paying our members appropriately? Where is an opportunity that builds our brand or is a value to a sponsor? Given our current financials this would mean letting go of or suspending for a period of time some or much of what we are doing now.


One version of reorganization is to redefine what membership is. In a number of conversations I have referenced the “Hearthstone Plan” which called for stripping away most member benefits and focusing on expanding and invigorating the grants program. Essentially it shifts NSN to becoming an operating foundation, raising and spending money on a few programs that it controls. It would be in keeping with our mission to grow storytellers but tightly focuses how we do that. It has the value of having a small administrative cost.


I do not have a specific model for reorganization that I want the Board to adopt. Any reorganization requires due diligence. If we commit to reorganization, my function as Board Chair is to manage that process with the Board, staff, membership, other partners / stakeholders and the public.


The ugly reality is the decision to reorganize will not guarantee our survival and will also require a two-five year rollout depending on what choices the Board makes.


“Death with Dignity”

There is a possibility that none of the approaches we have taken or can take will sustain us much less allow us to grow. There is a point at which that we will simply not have enough money to continue beyond X period of time. It is a point where membership dues and donations will not suffice. We need to know where that point is and agree on a response to that reality.

If that is the fact, let us acknowledge that NSN was a one-generation experience that propelled storytelling forward. We should celebrate the work we’ve done and it’s meaning for individuals and communities. Specifically we would set a date to close up shop and use the 2020 or 2021 conference as a “wake” – as a final goodbye celebration.


I am well aware that there are a number of things that have to be done in shutting down an organization. Papers need to be filed with the IRS and state governments. The 501(c)3 will need to be “suspended” or transferred to another organization. As an example one of the SIGs could take it and become an independent non-profit. A good portion of our funding is restricted – money belonging to the SIGs or to the grants programs. That money needs to be accounted for and returned to the donors or transferred to another non-profit to administer. What we have in assets – furniture, equipment, archives – needs to be “sold” before the dissolution or transferred as a part of the close out. All this takes time and planning.


I have been the last one out the door turning off the lights and frankly, if I have to do that, I want to not be surprised. From my perspective it is better to make a conscious decision to do these things rather than having someone (i.e. the Board) be responsible for doing it after the money is gone.


Are you still with me? Good.


Here’s my bottom line. In the next year NSN needs to make one or more fundamental decisions. I’m good with any one of them except to do nothing. We owe to ourselves as storytellers and to the three branches of storytelling – traditional, personal, applied – to decide and act. In becoming a Board member and the Chair I see my function as to helping the organization listen respectfully to each other – members or not – to understand what the issues and choices are, and to manage the decision that must be made.


I invite you to weigh in on the choices, on the future of NSN and join me in making manifest whatever that future will be.