Seeing Patterns and Possibilities

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Make up a story.  Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment in its being created.  We will not blame you if you reach exceeds your grasp.

– Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Without vision we drift without purpose and forfeit the possibilities lying just outside our door. Ellen Rolfes deftly weaves her own profound insights into the existing fabric of institutions and individuals, helping them discover the stories within – inspiring them to create their own bold vision for the future.

Throughout an entrepreneurial career that has spanned trade publishing, lecturing, fundraising, cause-related marketing, national seminar training, and ultimately as developer of creative philanthropy models, Ellen has helped institutions of all sizes and descriptions advance financially to create societal change.

As a visual patternist, she sees “dots” where others don’t. When she connects those dots, a picture emerges that tells a story – a story that was there all along and now others can see it as well. This is important work because people and institutions can perish without vision.

Ellen’s gift is the ability to see the patterns and possibilities found within their stories. Through it all, she shapes the institutional vision while deepening connections to the donor/client base, changing the cultural giving patterns, and creating greater awareness of organizational mission. People are soon retooled with fresh, new purpose. Her unique work has resulted in millions of dollars for her clients.

Meaning is not something you simply stumble across; meaning is something you build into your life. It is in our own story where we find this meaning, but first we must find the story. Here’s how Ellen Rolfes would tell her story that gave meaning to her work.

I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta where on summer evenings as a child I would play with my cousins, chasing fireflies and swatting mosquitoes. At dusk we would settle in on the boat dock to devour fried chicken, potato salad, and churned peach ice cream. With full tummies, we soon would cuddle together, whisper and listen to our elders tell vivid stories.

They were master storytellers who revealed our family’s history, traditions and folklore in what amounted to modern tribal fire that often lasted until almost to dawn. The laughter, joy, and love that I experienced enveloped me in a warm blanket of security and contentment. In their lively storytelling they explained how things had been done and why. They wanted us to understand our deep relatedness to one another and taught us that our work was to put in the world more than we took out. They were the weavers of these tales, and I am now a keeper of the same familial flame. I retell the stories to my own children and grandchildren so they will feel connected to their ancestry and have a deep understanding of this richness.

As I grew older, I began to realize that these abiding childhood stories nurtured and fed that kernel of destiny with which I was born – the passion to help organizations and individuals create their own bold visions by excavating the stories within. I understand the power of storytelling – we use our tales to pass on life experiences. They are how humans make sense of raw facts. Stories communicate ideas more effectively and profoundly than any spreadsheet or a bullet-point document – they can inspire us to move beyond our primal motivations and passionately participate in something bigger than ourselves. Stories subtly reveal the “why,” give purpose, connectivity and meaning to our lives.

As I entered the adult world and began to work within the hierarchy of institutional structures, I soon realized there were hidden rules. Members from top to bottom spoke mainly in harsh, impersonal, “day” language of measurables and deliverables solely to support the bottom line. In corporations both large and small, in academic and healthcare institutions, arts groups, and even in houses of worship, there was this one particular hidden rule: Speaking in “night language” with myths and metaphors, or relating life experiences as a communications tool was simply unacceptable. Storytelling even just as antidotal support material was taboo in the stagnant, often fear-based workplace.

These cultural mores have extracted a heavy price on the individual and collective soul. Human emotional and spiritual bandwidth reaches its breaking point when people find no meaning or purpose beyond the proverbial pay check. Even altruism expressed through gifts of time, talent and treasure seemingly falls into a vacuum.

But I have been at this work long enough to know that something is happening. Institutions and individuals are recognizing that the old ways are beginning to prove untenable and unworkable. Some are admitting that status quo is the disguise of decline. There are signs that the workplace is becoming more humanized, as we witness stories, myths and metaphors creeping in through the shard cracks of annual reports, web sites, speech prompters, e-newsletters, videos, and Power Point presentations. Even volunteer recruitment and stewardship or capital campaigns are being infused with this more alive, personal and authentic language of storytelling. A different conversation is bubbling up in the boardroom, committee meetings, at staff retreats, on “storyboards” and over salad lunches. It is filled with patterns and possibilities.

My mission is to widen those cracks – reach inside the collective soul and excavate the stories within – stories filled with rich images that can be overlaid onto the traditional measure-driven, monetary culture of institutions. When these two communication styles of “day language” and “night language” are honored and woven together, a more elevated language is born. Then authentic work, meaning, and shared vision result. The fusion awards financial success and personal fulfillment. Both are essential to build vibrant, sustainable models.

My first testing of this “fused language” was the foundation for my re-creating the community cookbook genre when I worked in trade publishing. My early “cookbook work” was the training ground that set the stage of excavating the community or institutional story buried in the collective knowledge base. I saw unexplored opportunity, as cookbooks had traditionally been only recipe collections without any internal conversation – really, just instruction manuals, but for me they were destined to become “story books.” In those pages I recognized the connection to my memories of my childhood, and it all became real. I saw that a recipe presentation could serve as the perfect framework to document the universal cultural setting where we pass on our values, beliefs and traditions at the meal table to the next generation. When embellished with storytelling, a simple food instruction manual became a more viable commercial enterprise because it was humanized, while carrying a deeper meaning of addressing society’s unfinished business.

Back then this new breed of community cookbook, filled with lore, family tales, and vivid repast began reaching an even broader market of “armchair cooks,” who read these “meal memories” like a novel about how people lived intimately together in a certain time and place. This is where I learned the trade.

One day my early career mentor in publishing, author Phyllis Tickle, took a piece of chalk and spontaneously scribbled this question on our office board,

“Why are you telling me all of this?”

Her simple sentence burned into my being. These words have been used ever sense as a divining rod, guiding me deeper and deeper into finding the story, in an attempt to have us really listen to one another.

Whether the story is retold in a published book, in the marketing or fundraising materials for non-profits, in campaign “talking points” used by the secular and religious institutions, educational or healthcare organizations, arts groups, it is all the same. Story reveals the “why,” and we are searching now more than ever for the meaning of “why we do what we do” in our institutions and in own lives.

When the “why” is present, suddenly people know they will be remembered as they remember, and their work thrives with life and meaning and of course, new found success. It is just in seeing the patterns and possibilities, then having deep dialogue to fuse the “day and night language.” Together we reveal the individual stories then weave them into the collective story to evoke a generative process. The experience enhances our power to create. Then personal, institutional, and even synchronic transformation follows.

This is my work.

-Ellen Rolfes

We are remembered as long as our stories are remembered.
– African tribal leader