Successful Nonprofit Arts Organizations, Like Successful Buildings, Depend on Successful Hierarchies
Bricklayers. Carpenters. Stagehands. Electricians. Actors. Musicians. Painters. Singers. Writers.
Easy to find hacks. Difficult to find experts. Project-based.
Foremen. Department heads. Designers. Curators. Musical directors.
Small universe of successful ones. More skills required. Still project-based. Work toward a larger goal than Level One, namely a finished piece. Excellent collaboration skills.
Smaller universe still. Hire and manage Level One and Two (no requirement to perform at their skill level). Work toward a slightly larger picture, although still project based.
Architects. Executive/Artistic/General/Producing Directors.
Scarce universe of specialists. Determine “what.” Hire Level Three – several Level Threes, in fact. Understand projects, themes, and cohesion.
Tiny, zealous universe. Hire Level Four. Determine “how.” Has personal stake.
The Community. The Mission.
Top of the hierarchy. Determines “why.”
Self-Absorbed Executive Search Firms: You’re Lovely, You’re Talented, You’re Dreamy. But Tact is Not Among Your Strengths.
On behalf of all candidates, to executive search firms:
“Thank you so much for your 3 [hour-long] phone interviews. I presented 8 tremendously qualified candidates to the client and unfortunately, you were not selected. But your loss is [company’s] gain. I’ll keep your info on file and contact you if something comes up.”
We may like you, but it’s not why we applied to that job you’re representing. Your client’s happiness with you means nothing to us.
One hour would have been plenty, not three.
A simple “no, thanks” is more palatable than “didn’t I do a good job?”
Please don’t insult us with passive-aggressive jibber-jabber – we know you’re not going to contact us unless we apply to another client of yours.
And please don’t tell us about other candidates. If we’re not among them, we really don’t care.
Feedback from You (yes, you): 9 Words That Describe the Nonprofit Arts Issues That Are Placing You at the End of Your Rope
This blog, as most are, is pretty much one-way. I share experiences, advice, consultation, and observations; you read ’em. I can discuss 1,000 issues that affect nonprofit arts organizations.
But that’s me.
What keeps you up at night?
What concrete issue (not just “there’s no funding for…”) is fraying your rope? Or better, what issues are figuratively tying a noose around the end of your rope?
Here’s your assignment. In 9 words (no more, no less), write that issue and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it. Beginning in August, we’ll periodically take each issue and I’ll give my take. Then we’ll open up the discussion to everyone who reads 137 Words. Let me know if you’d like your name in or if you’d like to be anonymous. And if you’d like my help privately, let me know that, too.
Special 2016 “Alan Harrison’s Birthday” Edition: Pack Up the Babies and Grab the Old Ladies – And an Easy-To-Fulfill Wish List
I was born on May 14. Conceived on a hot August night. Neil Diamond would’ve been proud. He was old enough to have a kid then, so…who knows? Brother Love? Are you my papa?
From him, I want flowers.
From you, I want (this is your cue):
- A 137-word card. ( <–Yes, that’s a link.)
- Share your favorite 137 Words post with your social network (that’s “share,” not “like”).
- To join a great company with a great mission. In Seattle.
- Health for The Kid.
- Guidance for The Kid.
- The love of my life to be happy, fulfilled, and curious. You know who you are.
- The ability for you to guide your favorite nonprofit to safety, security, and success.
- Brilliantly measurable missions, better than you believe you’re capable of.
- Complete, successful execution of those brilliant new missions.
- Pie, not cake.
Nonprofit Arts Executives: After the Ask (for anything, actually), It’s Fast “Yes,” Slow “No”… Try a Slow “Yes” Instead
If you don’t hear right away, it’s probably “no.”
That goes for asks, offers, hiring, and anything else you require.
And that goes for you, too, when your stakeholders ask, offer, hire, and anything else they may require.
Reflection is the predictable path toward rationalization to the “no.” This is why the phrase “upon reflection” is almost always followed by a version of “we’ve decided not to change.” After all, as a rule, it’s easier not to change than to take a risk.
Many arts charity executives preach the glory of “managed risk” (an oxymoron, of sorts) and value fiscal responsibility above social impact. To be clear, social impact is central to the success of the mission; fiscal responsibility is a valuable business practice.
If “yes” leads to greater impact, then stop saying “no”… especially upon reflection.
Anxious about hiring someone whose last position was at a higher level or payscale – or may be older or have more seniority in the organization than you do?
Do yourself a favor. Read one of any number of articles (hint: each of the last 6 words links to an article) about why you should have conversations with a purportedly “overqualified” someone who wants to work with you.
Or do nothing – in other words, hire an untested someone you believe is cookie-cutter copy of the person who’s gone (hint: they’re not).
It’s all in the process: instead of asking a roster of predetermined questions (that’s easy, simplistic, and unenlightened), have an unscripted conversation. You’ll learn more about the candidate, yourself, and your shared goals.
If you’re smart, you’ll hire that “overqualified” person. They’ll make you look fantastic.
Inevitably, there are moments where analysis disconnects with sentiment. You plan by yourself and generate work for your staff. Your staff objects. You have misread the room and caused great resentment. They think you’re a nut.
You’re in a big job interview. The interviewers say they want to “have a conversation,” but instead read from a pre-chosen list of questions. You try to converse. They bridle, citing “fairness.”
Your meetings with the board leave you rolling your eyes…and leave them rolling their eyes as well. You think they don’t understand the problem. They’re sure you don’t.
When you lead by pronouncement rather than by consensus; when you define interviews as interrogations; when you perceive meetings with superiors as continual performance evaluations – these are your issues, not theirs. That anxious sweat on your neck is on you.
Life on the Unraveling Nonprofit Arts Fringe: Why Hiring Experience and Guile Trumps Everything Else
Actor Hugh O’Brian is said to have coined “The 5 Stages of an Actor’s Career;”
- Who is Hugh O’Brian?
- Get me Hugh O’Brian.
- Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.
- Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.
- Who is Hugh O’Brian?
We’re in contact with hundreds of highly-experienced, resilient people who have made a career in the arts – and they’re having difficulties getting back into the field.
Some of it is ageism. Boards use headhunters to find smart young guns to lead departments or organizations — only to find that instead, they’ve hired brilliant 2-year placeholders with few people skills, entitlement issues, little flexibility, and quick parachutes.
Studies show those >50 stay longer than those under <40, are more productive, have better improvisational skills and flexibility, and are likelier to bring success.
Forget headhunters. Do your own search. Hire someone better than you.
If You’re _____________, Then Your Nonprofit Arts Organization is Probably Unsustainable (with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)
- not paying your executive director because s/he is independently wealthy and actually donates 6 figures to the company;
- working 70 hours/week every week and see nothing wrong with that;
- hiring part-time employees and expecting them to work full-time free of charge;
- of the belief that your employees are less important than your equipment or your building;
- insisting that anyone besides your marketing director is the final word on your marketing;
- keeping your artistic director away from donors because s/he doesn’t know how to interact with them;
- in the mindset that any of your people are more important than any other of your people;
- playing “Dialing for Dollars” to meet your payroll;
- arguing that “keeping the base” is more important than expanding the audience, while…
- thinking that you can do both;
- sweating a little right now after reading this post.
Confusing the Messenger with the Message: Artistic Direction Fulfills the Arts Organization (Not Vice-Versa)
Being a great director has little to do with being a great artistic director.
Directors direct projects. Artistic directors use a collection of projects to fulfill a mission that serves a community. These are completely separate skills.
ADs who direct some projects for their own company risk treating those projects as precious. Too often, they break rules for their project (organizational mission, budget, marketing, etc.) that they would never allow an “outside” director to break.
And in too many cases, when the identity of a nonprofit arts organization is too closely entangled with the vision of an artistic director, the organization’s brand is that much more difficult to recuperate when inevitable leadership change occurs.
After all, succession is not merely an artistic director handpicking a successor, is it? A company is greater than any individual leader, right?
I’ve been reading a number of articles discussing arts charity marketing as a whole-company tool, not a ticket-sales tool. Here’s one from TRG.
I was disappointed by Advancement Northwest’s Major Gifts Symposium keynote speakers’ idea of including donors within a charity’s mission.
I have been met with resistance from key artistic and production personnel who have been taught that “we do the art and everything else is a necessary evil.” (Actual quote.)
It’s just human nature for stakeholders to overvalue their contribution. Board members do it. Employees. Volunteers. Audience. Artists. Donors.
Here’s the thing: arts nonprofits that are created to solve a societal problem don’t have these issues. These issues fester when the company is created prior to creating (and rationalizing) a mission.
Create your company as an answer and horses and carts will sort themselves out.
Stop Kibbitzing Your Nonprofit Arts Marketers — They’re the Experts at What They Do (And You’re Probably Not)
Jerry Yoshitomi wrote a brilliant article last October. And in learning and unlearning of audience development skills, all too often marketing people are brutally disrespected by the other areas of the organization. I’ve heard marketing departments referred to as “a necessary evil” dozens of times.
Compare the following sentences:
“Anyone can market your arts organization.”
“Anyone can market your arts organization SUCCESSFULLY.”
“Anyone can act, paint, sing, dance, sculpt, direct, and play the tuba.”
“Anyone can act, paint, sing, dance, sculpt, direct, and play the tuba SUCCESSFULLY.”
Don’t be caught in ancient thinking. Just because all consumers react to marketing doesn’t make them good marketers. Treat marketers as you would treat other artists, because that’s what they are. They are the best interpreters of your product to the public. Don’t stand between them and your organization’s success.
If it ain’t broke, break it. Then fix it.
You only read books in one direction.
Your legacy ends when you leave.
Institutional survival is not the goal.
Missions are gods; mission statements are bibles.
The best leaders are the best assistants.
Learn why before you continue.
Success is measured by impact, not excellence.
“Fiscal responsibility” is a business practice, not a mission statement.
Volunteers are employees who work for $0.
If your people are averaging 50+ hours a week, you’re failing.
Always use transitive verbs in your mission statements.
The cool kids are back in high school.
Sharpen your point of view; that’s why it’s a point.
Be completely, spectacularly wrong.
Treat candidates like employees.
Treat employees like human beings.
Treat human beings as though you are one.
Fire yourself regularly; interview yourself for your job.
1. Never be the smartest person in the room. Hire candidates who are better than you. If you can’t, you’re probably an asshole.
2. Make clear what the goal is. In nonprofits, that goal is defined by the mission. If you can’t, your mission probably sucks.
3. Using their strengths (not yours), disseminate tasks rather than relying on calcified job descriptions. Create a human flow chart that leads to mission execution. If you can’t, people will keep quitting because of you.
4. Be their assistant, especially in small organizations, rather than insisting on having them be yours. If you can’t, you don’t really know what “team” means.
5. Don’t let “results” become your mood ring. Use “happiness” instead. Or “satisfaction.” If you can’t, quit your job so that someone else can do it better. If you think no one can, see Step 1.
Cultural Fit: FIFA, North Korea, the Kardashians, the Nixon White House…and Your Nonprofit Arts Organization?
I just read an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the over-utilization of “cultural fit” as a criterion for hiring. “One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.”
To an extent, cultural fit is interesting, but a “top hiring priority?” In the broadest sense, someone with an affinity for and experience in the nonprofit arts industry would seem to possess it for a nonprofit arts organization, as opposed to someone from Walmart.
But when challenges face the organization, or if an organization is seeking to “be taken to the next level,” cultural fit is the last thing you want in a key hire. Adding wax to a candle just makes a bigger candle. It doesn’t light up the night until you add the fire.
I’m baaaaa-aaaaack — “He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is…”
For 8 months, I’ve been temporarily working in Detroit, mixing Cervantes (above) with Kerouac (below). Detroit was fascinating.
Where to go next is the issue.
I’ve studied nonprofit arts cultures across the country and (so far) settled on regions surrounding Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
The house and TK are in Seattle. TG is in Detroit. I’ll give you a great deal on the house, but not the others.
Criterion #1: When a region’s arts community is comprised of a whole bunch of discrete mission-based organizations – rather than everybody doing everything – then that region’s organizations succeed. That’s for me.
Criterion #2: When a region’s arts community is comprised of a precious few large arts organizations, those organizations are doomed to irrelevance. Not for me.
But my mind wanders…
“What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?”
Paul Begala said, “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
The converse, that show business is politics for pretty people, is equally true.
Pretty (young) people enter nonprofit arts leadership believing that they should land a high-paying managing director’s job within 3 years. Ginormous student debt is predicated on that prospect.
Ugly (old) people, therefore, had better vamoose, and decrease the surplus population, to paraphrase C-Dick.
Pretty people panic at red ink. They leave. No experience or belief in failure.
Ugly people see an opportunity. They know when to duck and when to charge.
Consider for your next important hire:
- When hiring for “fit,” by definition, you’re hiring to appease. Don’t expect much change.
- When hiring for “innovation,” you’re hiring to anticipate obstacles. And only someone who has experienced obstacles (and carried on) knows how to do that.
“XYX YXYXYXYX (WHO SERVES AS GENERAL DIRECTOR AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, CEO) AND XXX XXXXXXXX (WHO SERVES AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR – DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING) HAVE A FAMILY RELATIONSHIP”
Their two combined salaries (excluding payroll taxes) to total budget: 6.0%.
Their two salaries to all salaries: 12.7%
These two employees to all 406 employees: 0.5%
Ratio, these two employees’ salaries to all employees’ salaries: 25-1
Current year surplus/(deficit): ($3,239,641)
Are your decision-makers married or in some family relationship? For a for-profit company, that’s fine. Family businesses and for-profit nepotism are mostly fine.
But charities, owned by the community and answerable to its constituents, are not family businesses. And when they act irresponsibly, like the above arts organization, it’s a travesty that negatively affects the whole industry.
Because now we have to convince supporters that this won’t happen to their donation.
Arrogance, thy name is YXYXYXYX.
Negatively Commenting on the Title of a Post (What You’re Reading Now) is Akin to PETA Boycotting “To Kill a Mockingbird” Because, You Know, They’re Killing a Mockingbird.
Recently, a foundation advocate negatively commented on the title of a 137 Words blog post. On the title, not the post.
As Ben Franklin once said, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
Thank you for reading 137 Words and sharing it with your colleagues. We’re pretty amazed when 137 Words evokes derision, praise, or questions.
If you haven’t shared yet, please do – karma will be kind.
In 6 months, 137 Words has picked up about 6,000 readers. That exceeds all our expectations. We are truly grateful.
And to those like this advocate who only read the title and not the posting (what you’re reading now), I only wish bliss. Or, should I say, additional bliss.
Harsh? Maybe so. Because I am all too often a card-carrying member of the Right to Extreme Stupidity League.
I just read an article in the Chicago Tribune about actors receiving no payment for some performances. I’m not sure why it was written, except as acknowledgment that, well, actors receive no payment for some performances. Even for hit shows.
But why? “We can either pay you guys and not do a show — or not pay you and do a show,” said one producer in the article.
Here’s the thing: there are lots of performers. The competition forces them to undervalue themselves.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s ethical not to pay them. At least minimum wage. For rehearsal and performance time.
If that producer decides not to make money on a project, that’s his prerogative. But no pay to performers is abusive, unless he’s offering 40 acres and a mule after the run of the show.
I’ve tortured people in the group interview process. I thought I was offering consensus. Buy-in. Group drive.
I was wrong.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Oh, so wrong.
To everyone I’ve ever put through that, on either side of the table, I apologize. I’ll never do it again. Promise.
There are four decisions: autocratic (I say), consultative (I say with your input), democratic (we vote, losers weep), consensus (we vote and everyone backs the decision).
As practiced, the group interview might have evolved into a method for managers to abdicate responsibility in the name of consensus. While consensus is ideal, the group-think process can too often be dominated by a crank in the corner with issues, motives, and insecurities. And, possibly, an unknown agenda.
Group-think promises consensus but can preclude innovation.
And why would you ever choose to preclude innovation?
Women’s issues are not about women. Race issues are not about people of color.
And when Mars attacks Oklahoma, the issues will not be about Oklahoma.
I visited a domestic abuse nonprofit. They do great work, but are ghettoized by donors as a “women’s issue” charity. The executive director wondered how they might be able to globalize the cause (and increase revenues).
“Domestic abuse is a societal problem,” she complained. “And I worry that without some men providing disinterested advocacy, we’ll only attract women donors.”
But every time she interviewed qualified men for marketing or development positions (and they’d graduate to a final 10-on-1 group interview), the staff and board balked. “Just not a good fit,” they’d euphemize. And they’d recommend another qualified woman.
Is your charity’s issue exclusively yours? If not, how are you communicating that?
Oh, those shoddy, “industry standard” hiring practices. They’re still here.
1) Communicate quickly, at least twice.
- We got your resume.
- Thanks for your interest, but you are not being considered (within a week of close).
2) When you’ve interviewed someone, call them (no email) within a week.
- Thanks for your interest, but you are no longer being considered.
- We’re still interviewing people. I’ll call you on [date range].
3) When you’ve interviewed someone more than once and have hired someone else, call them (no email) immediately.
- Thanks for your interest, but we’ve chosen someone else.
- …send communications stating who you’ve hired (salt, meet wound)
- …let them know they were in the final cut (see above)
- …say you’ll be in touch and then disappear.
- …be rude.
- …assume job-seekers are psychics.
I was an energetic, charismatic, visionary leader.
I worked at least 60 hours a week.
The office is by turns chaotic and paralyzed.
Some are crying.
Some are ecstatic.
Outside the charity, most don’t care.
Not their problem.
Trustees are panicking. Staff members are traumatized.
Some are taking charge, Alexander Haig-style.
Others are forming committees to decide what to decide.
Still others are composing resignations.
Reporter on line 1.
I knew every board and staff member.
And their families.
I knew every major donor.
I knew local foundation leaders.
Benefactors on line 2.
Beneficiaries on line 3.
I knew financials.
I knew history.
I had passwords.
Vendors on line 4.
I knew where everything was.
I shared that information.
But that was 5 years ago.
To employees who are no longer here.
Too bad there wasn’t a written succession policy.
Not my problem.
You don’t have to be Alan Turing to break the HR “can’t-ask-how-old-you-are” code:
“How is your energy level?” = “Are you a geezer?”
…Correct response: “I run 26 marathons daily.”
“What were you doing before 2001?” = “What were you doing before I turned 10?”
…Correct response: “I’m 35 years old with 30 years’ experience.”
“When did you graduate college?” = “I’m checking my arithmetic to determine your age.”
…Correct response: “When I was 22.”
“How flexible are you?” = “Is your mind as ossified as a petrified fossil?”
…Correct response: “I’m currently holding the phone with my pinkie toe while simultaneously writing Iraq’s new constitution.”
Seriously, though, hiring managers: according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 45–64 stayed twice as long as those 25–34 — so those under 40 are a much higher risk of leaving you high and dry.
So stop it.