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Problems With Non-Profit Work Environment Pushed Into Greater View

This morning, The Atlantic published a story about The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee that addresses the conflict non-profits face between paying employees well and devoting funds to services.

While this is not a new conversation at all for those of us in the non-profit sector, it isn’t one that is often discussed in the general media. It is good to see the topic getting out there.

The main impetus for this story seems to be the concern many non-profits feel over the new Department of Labor wage rules which won’t allow companies, including non-profits, to classify employees as exempt from overtime payment rules.

Anyone making less than $47,476 salary a year will be eligible for overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week.

The article notes that many non-profit organizations depend heavily on staff classified as exempt to work overtime in order to achieve their missions. They point out the dichotomy “…between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs.”

I felt like the article did a good job of illustrating the tension between wanting to do good in communities with limited funding that often has strings attached and the fact that low salaries and long hours often mean employees are only slightly less stressed than the people they serve.

It is one thing to feel indignant upon reading about the double-standard that exists (my emphasis):

Strangely, though nonprofits are increasingly expected to perform like businesses, they do not get the same leeway in funding that government-contracted businesses do. They don’t have nearly the bargaining power of big corporations, or the ability to raise costs for their products and services, because of tight controls on grant funding. “D.C. is full of millionaires who contract with government in the defense field, and they make a killing, and yet if you’re a nonprofit, chances are you aren’t getting the full amount of funding to cover the cost of the services required,” Iliff said. “Can you imagine Lockheed Martin or Boeing putting up with a government contract that didn’t allow for overhead?”

But when you read about how people who assist those experiencing trauma can’t afford to get help dealing with their own trauma, there is a greater sense of urgency that the environment needs to change:

When Roberts arrived, the battered woman clung to her and asked her to listen to a recording of the sounds of fighting and of the woman screaming and crying. Roberts joined her in prayer, helped her move her things to a new apartment, went back to the agency, locked herself in the bathroom, and sobbed. On days like that, Roberts wanted to get therapy, but knew that she couldn’t afford it. “If I had gotten paid for all the hours I was working, even at my base rate, I would have jumped at the opportunity to seek care to make sense of what I’ve experienced on the job,” Roberts says. “But I wasn’t making enough to pay for anything more than my basic needs.”

It should be noted that the Ms. Roberts’ employer forbids people to work overtime, but there was an organizational culture that dissuaded people to take time off or flex their time when the demands of the job went past 5 pm.

As I read the article, there seemed to be a slight subtext suggesting that the new labor laws may force a lot of the issues into the light and lead to reformation. Once non-profits tell government agencies and other funders they can no longer legally accomplish the same things for the old levels of funding, then long overdue decisions will have to be made.

The new salary rules eliminate the margins that allowed non-profits to try to do more with less. While it may be a relief when non-profit employees finally begin to get paid and scheduled appropriately, the communities those non-profit organizations serve may suffer a great deal more before the reality of the situation is acknowledged and appropriate steps are taken.

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Failing To Your Back Up Plan

Harvard Business Review had a short piece about a study that found that having a back-up plan often undermines one’s motivation to succeed.  The interviewer specifically uses an example of having a back-up plan to an arts career in one her questions. (not to mention the first image you see is a dancer en pointe in one sneaker)

So, to use another cliché, we need to always act as if failure is not an option?
The punch line of this research could certainly be this: If you prepare for failure, you may be more likely to fail. But the practical advice we would give is more nuanced than that. We’re not suggesting that you always avoid making backup plans. But maybe you could hold off on doing so until you’ve put as much effort as possible into your primary goal. If you’re a manager of a team working toward a certain objective, consider asking a second group, consisting of different people, to come up with the backup plan rather than your A team. If you’re an entrepreneur, think about committing to one start-up idea for a period of time, instead of planning for and being ready to jump to another project as soon as things go south.

My aunt always told my cousin, an aspiring dancer, that she should get a teaching degree to fall back on. Was she wrong?
Success and performance depend on many factors. For some people, not making a backup plan might indeed be beneficial in helping them put their best effort forward. Some parents assume that having a backup plan is always a good thing, yielding nothing but positive outcomes. Given our findings, we’d suggest that they at least consider the possible negative effects.

Before I go any further, lets remind ourselves that achieving a high level of performance in any endeavor is not necessarily rewarded with remuneration or acclaim. Often there is no direct relationship between financial success and ability.  Jihae Shin who authored the study states that plainly – success and performance depend on many factors.  When it comes to arts careers, it often seems like those factor are stacked against you.

Since we are at the start of a new school year, this is probably a good time to resurrect (if it has ever been buried) subject of whether those pursuing an arts careers should be advised to think about a back up plan.

If you tell a person who is highly skilled and possessed of the potential to be a world class actor/dancer/ musician/visual artist to have a back up plan, are you undermining their potential?

If they achieve their potential and can’t find a means of support for themselves through their practice and have no other skills, have you contributed to their misery?

This conversation intersects with the one about artists needing to be more entrepreneurial vs. diluting a conservatory experience to provide instruction in that direction.  Where is the cut off line of talent and skill between those who should be counseled to pursue a discipline relentlessly and those who should start making back up plans?

Who is the best judge of this? Many would say the budding artist can’t be trusted to know themselves. Either they overestimate their talent and ability or are squandering it.

Carter Gillies outright says there was evidence that he should not be an artist…then he stuck his fingers in clay, got an MFA and is supporting himself as a potter.

To a large degree, success in an artistic career is more attributable to an intersection of luck and good connections than the accurate prognostications of mentors, professors, friends and family.

My personal bias is toward picking up as many skills as you can and being open to opportunities that come along. My own career path is not what I envisioned it would be and some of it was a result of getting out of my own way. (Though I suspect I could be a bit more open.)

I am going to go out on a limb and say that when Drew McManus was working his butt off to attend Interlochen Arts Camp, he may have had an inkling that he would be an orchestra consultant one day.  But probably didn’t think he would be running a blogging exchange, arts job board, designing websites for arts organizations and rolling out a scheduling management service.

There are more opportunities to apply our skills than we are lead to believe. When I say this, I don’t just mean artists, I mean that we have been largely socialized to believe that success is found at the end of a college degree in a STEM or Business field and all else results in a job in a fastfood restaurant.

Does keeping your eyes and options open constitute a back up plan that will keep you from reaching your potential? Assuming you are motivated to find something that works for you and apply yourself to pursuing it, I would say it isn’t. Given that many people tend to have multiple careers over the course of their lives, it may be unwise to be too much of a specialist.

Jihae Shin suggests there are different ranges of time in which refusal to entertain other options is useful.  Eschewing any alternative for a lifetime can be destructive.

Aside from your job search, have these findings changed how you operate at work?

Yes, I now sometimes try to delay making a backup plan until after I’ve really done everything I can to accomplish my first goal. For example, when Katy and I were working on this research project, I didn’t think about other projects we could do if this one failed.

Just because you opt for your back up plan doesn’t mean you can never dance again.

But lets face it, the whole subject and conversation is complex and full of nuance. Not the least of which is that as an artist, even the suggestion that you may “never dance again” if you choose a back up plan is emotionally and spiritually painful.

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Why Would We Not Want More?

I frequently write about why arguing the benefits of the arts based on their instrumental value (e.g. improves economy or test scores) is a bad approach because it depends on an absence of a substitute which is effective at accomplishing the same ends.

The alternative is to talk about the intrinsic value of art, or art for arts sake. The problem with this approach is that it lacks that concrete data that everyone says they base their decisions on.

Or rather, it lacks the concrete data that everyone insists they are faithfully basing their decisions upon. If you have paid any attention to the way decisions are made in the political or educational arenas, you know that isn’t true. Still, if you want to make your case, you have to do it in a convincing manner in terms which people can relate.

Teacher Peter Greene had an entry on Huffington Post about a year ago which performs this task pretty effectively in regard to defending music education. It probably isn’t the exact approach to take if you are called to provide testimony at your state legislature, but he provides a general ground plan.  (my emphasis)

Music is universal. It’s a gabillion dollar industry, and it is omnipresent. How many hours in a row do you ever go without listening to music? Everywhere you go, everything you watch— music. Always music. We are surrounded in it, bathe in it, soak in it. Why would we not want to know more about something constantly present in our lives? Would you want to live in a world without music? Then why would you want to have a school without music?


Making music is even more so. With all that music can do just for us as listeners, why would we not want to unlock the secrets of expressing ourselves through it? We human beings are driven to make music as surely as we are driven to speak, to touch, to come closer to other humans. Why would we not want to give students the chance to learn how to express themselves in this manner?

Music is freakin’ magical. In 40-some years I have never gotten over it — you take some seemingly random marks on a page, you blow air through a carefully constructed tube, and what comes out the other side is a sound that can convey things that words cannot. And you just blow air through a tube. Or pull on a string. Or whack something. And while we can do a million random things with a million random objects, somehow, when we just blow some air through a tube, we create sounds that can move other human beings, can reach right into our brains and our hearts. That is freakin’ magical.

Even though the “Why would we not…” questions are not completely based on logic, it shares many of the same motivations that drive scientific inquiry.

We are surrounded by sun, air, earth and water, why would we not want to study them to better understand how they impact things like agriculture and help us prepare for drought, fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes?

As I said, while Greene’s reasoning doesn’t provide quantitative measurements to support it, it does provide what Carter Gillies says is often lacking in such rationale – it begins to teach people why we value the arts – and it does it with language that captures attention and starts to fire the imagination.

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Concentrating On What Is There Not On What You Wish Was There

Maria Popova made a BrainPickings post about Elliott Schwartz’s book, Music: Ways of Listening, about four years ago. The link to it just came to my attention recently.

Popova notes, “you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.”

Reading Schwartz’s thoughts, I think you could probably make a similar substitution for most arts disciplines.

As I mentioned last week, I have been trying to be more active about answering Arts related questions on Quora. Yesterday, I received a request to answer a question about what things should one think about if they wanted to become a better dancer. I started thinking what my answer might be if no one else stepped forward to answer. To my slight surprise, many of the general approaches I was thinking of suggesting are included in Schwartz’s list from 1982.

I wouldn’t necessarily include all these in a Quora answer, but among the things Schwartz wrote that jumped out at me were the following:

Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.

I liked this one especially because it isn’t necessary to do a substitution at all to make it applicable to other arts disciplines. It can be just as valuable to an actor, dancer, writer, visual artist, etc to pay attention to mundane sounds around them and be sensitive to how that might manifest in the work they produce.

The same is true regardless of whatever discipline you might insert. Actors frequently people watch to gain deeper insight into the way they can depict characters and relationships. Dancers, musicians, writers and visual artists can all use people watching to inform their work. And then so on with each discipline.

Try to develop musical concentration, …It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

The idea that is it okay and normal to lose focus and become bored when participating in an arts experience goes back to the early days of this blog. (obligatory nod to Drew McManus) It is important for people who are relatively inexperienced to be aware that such guideposts exist for them.

Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

I thought the idea of concentrating on “what’s there” and not what you wish would be there is especially relevant these days when you can get the exact form of gratification you desire upon demand by pulling your smartphone from your pocket. (Though I suppose there were similar issues people were bemoaning in 1982. Can’t think of what since cable and VCRs weren’t ubiquitous presences.)

Popova excerpts seven tips from the book and I have pared down the ideas expressed even further. At the very least it is worthwhile to view the Brainpickings post and ponder what Elliott Schwartz had to say.

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