10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Working at Art Nonprofits

nonprofit

I got into this biz in the late 90’s. My first job after college was working as event staff at an art center in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve held many titles at different companies, most of them small to mid-size in budget. And I have found quite a few surprises throughout my career. Some great. Others… eh, not so much.

If you’re a young person planning on entering this field, I hope this prepares you more than I ever was when I started. If you’re already in the thick of this arena, feel free to: nod, cry, hate this post, or laugh inappropriately. It’s all acceptable. Yes, please also contribute to the comment section for any goodies that I may have missed in writing this post. At the end of the day, as I often like to remind us, we’re all in this together.

 

1. People stay

Do you love your job so much you dream of becoming your boss’s successor? Fat chance. Full-time gigs are hard to come by in the nonprofit world. Add extreme drive and fervor to the comfort of job security, and you’ll find few people – if any – vacate their positions. And if your boss is a founding member, ah heck, come on now, forget about it. In the style of the Pharaohs, they’re most likely taking their legacy with them.

Piece of advice: Leave before you start thinking that you can do your mentor’s job better than they can… You can’t. If you could’ve, you would’ve started your own company. But you didn’t. Unless you did, in which case, congratulations!!! Ummm…. say, watch out for those young ‘uns. They’re gunning for your job.

 

2. Promotion? What promotion?

You’re already carrying the weight of ten titles you may have been promoted to or from. You’re the stage tech, the facilities manager, the program manager, the box office manager, the marketing coordinator, the office manager, the volunteer coordinator, the master of ceremony, the bartender and the custodian. For real, that next tier of pay and leadership that you have in mind is most likely a figment of your imagination.

Piece of advice: Do everything you can to outgrow your position. You might still do the work of (ten) now eight people at your next nonprofit gig but ideally for more pay.

gosling arts administrator
Pictured: Ryan Gosling, Arts Administrator

 

3. The meaning of the word, benefit

Benefit is usually synonymous with the big annual fundraiser, not excellent health coverage. You’ll find the art nonprofit field is populated with lots of part-time and contract workers; i.e. those not eligible for medical. You’re likely going to start in such a position. Still, people lucky enough to score full-time work shouldn’t be surprised to find that their health benefits meet only the minimum legal requirements and that the dentist they’ve been assigned has 50 one-star ratings on Yelp.com.

Piece of advice: Don’t get sick, wear your bicycle helmet, and floss often.

Steve Martin in Little Shop
Pictured: Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors

 

4. People wear nonprofit like a badge

You may hear people declare militantly, “We’re nonprofit!” presuming everyone subscribes to some widely understood code of ethics and worldview. Try tattooing 501C3 on your arm and it might prove how silly it is to identify so ferociously with what are actually terms and forms created by the Internal Revenue Service. “I’m W9, dammit!!!” Okay, seriously?

People also take nonprofit to be a budgetary requirement; i.e. always end with zero on the balance sheet. Look, I’m no Suze Orman but no surplus pretty much ensures that when you hit a bump in the road (and everybody does), furloughs, layoffs, emergency loans, foreclosure, and dissolution may soon follow.

Piece of advice: Repeat after me. “I work at a nonprofit. I am not a nonprofit. Neither my lack of money, NOR my abundance of money, define the goodness of my character. Amen.”

 

5. We’re ballers on a budget

Oh, are we! You’ll learn to do a lot with very little. It’s easily one of the best skills you’ll acquire on the job. Some people romanticize and lament the passing of old world barter traditions. Well, anti-capitalist, weep no more. This is how everything still proceeds in the nonprofit sector. When you’re cash-strapped, you don’t have the luxury of incentivizing with bonuses (With what supply?) or threatening demotions for mediocre performances (Downgrade to where?). Everyone’s already underpaid and overworked. What you’re left with is an intricate and finely balanced system of cooperation and exchange. In this regard, nonprofit workers are alchemists really. That’s how things get done, by turning opportunity trade and shared missions into vibrant and rich programming. This is the secret behind the fantastic output of many scrappy organizations.

Piece of advice: Recall these skills the next time you catch yourself thinking that a little bit more money would solve all your problems. It may; it may not. Stretch your dollar and don’t make excuses for not delivering. Additionally, keep in mind that domineering personalities usually don’t fare well in this business. They may be impressive at first but sooner or later, they get on everyone’s nerves and leave critical relationships in ruins. Collaboration is king.

Barter-System

 

6. The missing key in arts education

That’s what you’ll get when you enter this field. Anyone that’s been following Art of Hustle for a good while will know how much I can sometimes distrust higher education. Which, by itself, is not entirely accurate. I am friends with and have tremendous respect for many teachers, lecturers, professors and administrators at all kinds of schools and universities. I LOVE education. In fact, more, please! For everyone and all the time. What I do have beef with is empty promises of “career” that leave graduates with backbreaking student loans and no toolkit of survival skills. Working (or interning, apprenticing, fellowshipping, etc.) at an art nonprofit could quickly catch you up on all the things you didn’t learn in your Fine Arts program. Like, how the heck artists get booked, win awards, receive grants, make a living, and how the arts field itself manages to survive given all of its obstacles.

Piece of advice: Treat this like an independent study class. There is no curriculum so expect to ask a lot of questions, listen and observe, and arrive at many of your own conclusions.

starving_artist

 

7. Is there no “u” in community?

You’re thinking, “Yes, there is.” But if you wonder whether *you* as an employee might be considered a beneficiary within the community you’re aspiring to take care of and uplift, the answer regrettably is most commonly no. Forget clocking out. You’re likely going to work past 5PM. And even after you leave the office, you’ll still be answering emails and assembling projects from home. Passion can be a wonderful thing but it may also lead to individuals “burning out” in this line of work. It happens. A lot! And not enough people want to talk about it until someone’s gone downright loopy. At which point, you’ll visit the Midwest for a retreat in order to search for yourself, remember why you got into this work to begin with and then recommit to your life’s calling. But why reach that breaking point in order to check in with yourself?

Piece of advice: No one else is better qualified to take care of you than… uh… you! Hellooo? Sure, work can get zany. However, you must create boundaries in your schedule to remember to eat well, hydrate often, get exercise, and spend quality time with friends, family and self. More often than not, it’s simply a matter of calendaring these things with equal priority as your work appointments. Just because everyone else is running ragged, doesn’t mean you have to. Yes, meet ALL of your responsibilities, including the ones you owe to being a happy and healthy person. And if you ever become a manager, please extend this value of wellbeing to your staff. As corny as this cliche is, really though, homie, “be the change.”

work-life-balance-2

 

8. Stacking skills for the resume

You might not even fully realize it till you resign from a particular job but, if you go full out during your run, you will become quite a dynamo! You’ll find your job was way more than the responsibilities listed in the announcement you initially responded to. And after all the headaches and heartaches, you will look back and see how much you’ve expanded. Meeting the unique challenge of filling ten positions in one title will do that for you.

Piece of advice: You clearly did not get into this for the money. The wealth you accumulate will come by way of new capabilities. So, don’t mug yourself! You must celebrate often and record all of your accomplishments. You’ll need to refer to these highlights especially when you update your resume and interview at your next job. Also, naturally, you don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or unjustly take any credit, but when you’re doing an assessment, it is important to remember to give yourself dap for any of the organization’s successes in which you’ve made contributions. You might not be the rock star of the group (heck, you may have even been slept on) but you are part of a team. So if the company’s had a good year or season, if morale was up, if engagement was on the rise, if the fundraiser went well – and you had anything to do with it – go ahead and say so.

 

9. Heaven for art & culture geeks

Don’t be too surprised when you’re having meetings and coordinating with people that you have seen in videos, that you have read about in books, or that you have, in the past, bought tickets to see. People that are now becoming associates, colleagues, or genuine friends. Working at an arts organization is virtually the best backstage pass that an arts enthusiast could ask for. The job also ensures that you don’t have to lead some double life. Your work and your life’s work will be more closely tied, and will inform one another. It’s a great place for those that want to soak up creativity in its many forms throughout the workweek – from the theoretical to the administrative.

Piece of advice: Don’t be too starstruck. Keep it professional. In other words, you’re not gonna want to slip anyone your demo tape on the sly, okay? However, do enjoy yourself!

 

10. Knack for handling uncertainty required

Without a doubt, this field is like no other – for better or for worse. If you’re going to appreciate it and grow from it, you’ll have to dispel some of your preconceived notions about career and about a career in arts and nonprofit work, in particular. You’re going to want to journey through this space with the lightness and gusto of a seafaring explorer. No two people will travel the same course. Each will make their own way, thrive in their own way, give in their own way, and eventually, whether after just a short while or after a lifetime, retire from the field in their own way. Everyone’s part will be important and it will be solely up to you to choose how you navigate this wild and whirly terrain.

Piece of advice: Show up with a sense of adventure.

Good luck and godspeed.

hokulea_molokai_monte
Pictured: Hōkūle’a

 
 

Are you a seasoned pro? An arts veteran? What tips do you have for newcomers and aspiring arts professionals? Let us in know in the comment field. It is my hope that these latest blog entries get us, pros and newcomers alike, thinking and talking more about how to better our practices in this creative arena that we so love.

Do you have mentees? Or friends thinking of entering the art nonprofit field? You can share this post with them by clicking the share buttons below.

 
 

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2 responses to “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Working at Art Nonprofits”

  1. Michelle says:

    Great list! I’d also say that not all non-profits are created equal so there are larger organizations that might provide more mobility/benefits than others.

    In regards to “stacking the resume,” people forget to keep their resume up to date and because their official job title hasn’t changed they don’t bother. But it’s critical that a resume is always up to date even if you’re not looking, especially if you’re not looking. You never know where the next career step is and maybe they’re looking for you! Plus, because career advancement isn’t clear, by updating your resume you have created a personal timeline of documenting your growth as a person and you realize that you’ve got way more mad skillz that you give yourself credit for.

    • Hi Michelle! Thanks for chiming in! I have to agree with your observation regarding differences in organization size. And it’s great advice you offer to keep the resume updated even if one isn’t actively looking. Yes, definitely, to collecting mad skillz!!! 🙂

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