Building tomorrow’s work force

Forward-thinking organizations and individuals know that the best way to strengthen an organization is to invest time and energy in developing the leaders of tomorrow.  These promising individuals may go on to do other things if they are not able to see a clear career path and future for themselves in the arts industry.  It is time to build tomorrow’s talented and diverse workforce.

Is the younger generation different?

A big questions that all nonprofit arts groups face is whether there has been a generational shift in the attitudes and motivations of arts management professionals that may have an impact as they replace the current baby boomers leaders.

Recently, a group of emerging leaders was questioned on their career plans, attitudes, and expectations.  Participants were asked individually about their views on the future of arts leadership and the younger generation in particular.

Results show that while younger professionals in the arts are different from their elders in some ways, they are remarkably similar in others.

Emerging leaders are dedicated to the arts

Although there is high staff turnover in arts organizations among younger and emerging leaders, those recruited for research were a more stable group. Almost all had been in their current position for five or more years, and those who had changed jobs had made a carefully planned move into a position with more responsibility and opportunity for growth.

When asked what they like about their jobs, and whether they plan to remain involved in the arts, emerging leaders echoed executive directors with long tenure, describing their love for the arts and their desire to make significant contribution to society.

  • “You help steer an organization, which, in theory, gives back to the community. Most of us are here because we think we are giving back to the community somehow. We’re not here to make money, because very few, even at the executive director level, make significant money relative to other fields.”
  • “My career plans are definitely in the arts. I have plans to attend graduate school in the near future, and when I’m finished, I’ll decide exactly what to do, but it will be in the arts, for sure.”
  • “It’s also the enjoyment of the job – the interactions that you have. I think that is why some of us stay, because we really enjoy what we are doing.”

The starving artist is an idea whose time has passed

In spite of their interest in the arts and their desire to have a long-term career in the field, emerging leaders were vocal about their financial expectations for the future. While they understand that there may be limitations on what they can expect to earn in an arts career, they are unwilling to accept a meager salary for the privilege of working in the arts.

  • “I don’t believe in sacrificing myself for the arts. As much as I like the arts, I don’t believe the arts are the non plus ultra of society. I believe in food and medicine and housing. The arts are important, but to me, it’s not a religion.”
  • “When you are managing a budget of a million dollars, you don’t want to be getting paid thirty thousand. It’s just not right.”
  • “I think if you are going to be a midsize or large organization and you want to thrive, you have to give people incentives to stay. If someone can go across the street and make more money being a secretary, why wouldn’t they go get a midlevel job there?”

There is a strong belief that the only way to raise the salaries in arts organizations is for arts professionals to demand fair compensation. Doing less perpetuates the problem.

  • “I just don’t buy into the victimization that has been going on for so many years about administration in the arts, and that it pays so little. To me, if it pays me a wage I can’t live on, I have to leave. I have to ask for a salary I feel comfortable with. To do anything else isn’t good for me, and it is not good for the organization.”
  • “It goes back to the myth of the starving artist, and I, for one, don’t appreciate that. I don’t appreciate the ivory tower artist myth either. I think it’s time we got rid of both of those myths.”
  • “I think if you stay on a salary you can’t live on, you further assist the marginalization of the arts.”

There is no clear path to moving forward in the arts

Emerging leaders are frustrated by the lack of a clear career path in arts organizations. Plans for the future are difficult to make, because it is never clear where the next opportunity will come from.

  • “I would like to be an executive director. The thing about the arts is, it’s very hard to know where that is going to be. For now, it’s really a matter of keeping your eyes on job opportunities nationally – talking to people, making connections – and then when the right jobs comes, you move.”
  • “When you get to a certain level, it is hard to find out what associate directorships or deputy directorships might be out there if I wanted to move to a different kind of organization or to a bigger place.”
  • “Most of the hierarchies are so flat that you can’t progress more than a few steps until you have to make a move to another organization.”
  • One of the realities in most art organizations, especially if you are at sort of the midlevel, is that you will hit a certain level and the director or deputy director will plan on being there for ten or fifteen years, and you know that once you have made your mark, you are going to have to leave in order to advance.”

Racial barriers hamper minority progress

Emerging leaders agreed that some midlevel jobs have become more open to racial and ethnic minorities; there are still strong barriers for nonwhites who want to move into high-level leadership positions. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have found a solution for the problem other than to keep moving forward.

  • “If you look at the top leadership of mainstream arts organizations, no one will be a person of color. Also, development departments are mostly white. Development is especially sensitive to that. They think we’re going to have this guy with this accent talking to all those high-powered board members. It is not explicit, but even in organizations that talk about diversity, the barriers are very strong.”

Mentors are important but rare

Members of this group said that they had mentors who had been important influences on their career development, but that forming and sustaining mentor relationships are difficult.

  • “Nobody has time to develop anybody. To say, ‘this kid has fire, I’m going to develop her because she has potential to become something’ – that takes time and most people don’t have the time or the expertise to do that. So you get hired for your job, you do it, and then when it is time, you leave. That’s all there is to it.”
  • “I have come to realize that you have to be really motivated to go after some things. There is no one who’s going to know what you need better than you.”

What needs to be done to develop leaders for the future?

Nonprofit organizations need to act quickly to attract, retain, and develop the skilled, committed and diverse workforce it needs in the decades ahead. Solving the nonprofit work-force problems will take time and a large, unified effort. Nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and government all need to realize how society will suffer if nonprofit groups are not able to continue to attract the dedicated workers who today hold more than ten million jobs in which they meet community needs. Local economies depend on nonprofit organizations to provide job opportunities and attract businesses.

How can we attract young people to nonprofit careers?

Growing numbers of young people are expressing interest in nonprofit careers. Yet very few young people know how to begin seeking such jobs, and universities as well as nonprofits are not providing much help in connecting the two.  Nonprofit leaders should take the time to meet with the local college office of career services staff to help educate them about careers in the nonprofit industry.  A nice model to show career services staff is Brown University’s online “Careers in the Common Good.”

Those young people who find their way into a nonprofit organization are getting very little training and support in their jobs.  Take the time to talk strategically about how to address this issue with the younger members of your staff.  Solutions they are part of developing are more likely to work.

Can the diversity of the nonprofit workforce be improved?

Nonprofit organizations must explicitly promote the attraction, retention, and advancement of those who are underrepresented in leadership, especially people of color. The lack of people of color in leadership positions at community and national nonprofits is appalling. Considering the constituencies served by these organizations, the growing numbers among minority populations – particularly in Texas– and the millions spent on diversity training and public relations in recent decades, there is little to show for it.

Building the next generation of leadership means making a more deliberate effort to develop leaders who are people of color or who come from other groups not well-represented among nonprofit leadership. We must confront the situation that currently exists in the nonprofit world, and break down barriers. Generational, cultural, and structural barriers limit the support and advancement of diverse leadership. Efforts to deal with these challenges are not widespread enough to solve the needs of nonprofits.

Where is the best place to start?

Nonprofit organizations would be well served by training in human resources. Lack of staff development, high turnover, and poor management practices limit the efficiency and effectiveness of many organizations. Only 12% of nonprofit organizations have a dedicated staff member who focuses on personnel matters, and at 53% of nonprofit organizations, the executive director handles all human resource duties. Only 10% of small nonprofit organization leaders have received any human resources training.

Is burnout a concern for nonprofit organizations?

Yes!  Over 70% of nonprofit employees reported that they had too much work to do, 75% called their work frustrating, and most believed they lacked the support and tools they needed to do their jobs effectively. Burnout is real and is an issue that every nonprofit organization should work toward dealing with.  One in three nonprofit employees leaves his or her job in the first two years.

Some simple steps to develop young leaders:

  • Talk to them. Tell them about their career opportunities in your organization in the nonprofit sector.  Tell them you see them as a future leader.  Get their thoughts on the future and begin a dialogue with them about their development as a leader.
  • Take them with you. Take them to board meetings, to art openings, conferences, meetings, to lunch.  Provide them with opportunities to network, to be seen, and to watch.
  • Provide them with professional development. Send them to conferences, professional meetings, classes, and/or trainings.  Arrange for them to have a week or more at another arts organization to expose them to different sizes and types of organizations.  Find creative ways to give them a variety of learning opportunities.
  • Nominate them. Suggest to your colleagues that they might serve on committees or panels.  Nominate them for leadership development programs, like Americans for the Arts.
  • Give them a project. Trust them with a project all their own.  Show your confidence in their abilities by not second-guessing their methods.
  • Open doors for them.

see Sample Interview Questions (PDF) and a Sample Interview Assessment (PDF)

Adapted in part from studies by Academy for Educational Development, Building Movement Project,Succession: Arts Leadership for the 21st CenturyIllinois Arts Alliance