Creativity A Euphemism for Extreme Thrift?

Apologies to regular readers of the blog. I started using a new ticketing system and started training a new staff person in the same week which has not be conducive to blog entries. But things have evened out a bit and here I am.

I read a report over the weekend on the perceived lack of qualified workers in non-profit settings. A study done by people at Johns Hopkins of all non-profit sectors, including performing arts, found that, in general, it wasn’t as difficult to find qualified people to fill positions as some recent newspaper articles have made it out to be. Most organizations were also mostly pleased by the quality of the people they did hire.

There were some areas that were harder to recruit for than others. Organizations that served the elderly had a slightly harder time than most finding people. Fundraisers and information technology staff were among the toughest positions to fill. Trying to achieve greater minority representation was also quite difficult. The report did note that few organizations made special efforts to attract minorities, though.

For the arts in particular, there were some details that boded well and others not so well. On the positive side, “…turnover and hiring activity was somewhat lower…among theaters. On the negative side, both theatres and museums were the group most dissatisfied with the diversity of their applicants and with their ability to meet the salary requirements of their applicants.

I had mixed feelings about the results the survey found regarding staff turnover. Eighty percent of those surveyed had turn over in the year prior.

“Surprisingly, however, the proportions claiming negative effects from this turnover were less pronounced than might have been expected, and were often offset by roughly similar proportions claiming positive effects.”

In the accompanying chart on page 5, the only categories in which the positive responses outstrip the negative are in organizational budget and staff creativity. The negatives were much higher than the positives in productivity, morale and burnout.

The positives about the budget are obvious. Not having to pay someone helps save money. I am uneasy about the staff creativity result because I think the go to position for so many non-profits when they face staff shortages of any sort is to smile and determine to work harder and smarter.

I suspect creativity claim is actually a ploy to cope with the increased workload and is a facade for the damage to morale and feeling of burnout. Having been in similar situations, I imagine that the creativity manifests itself in penny pinching steps akin to my grandmother washing aluminum foil and hanging it on the line to dry so it can be reused.

Everyone stands around and congratulates each other on how clever they are to be so thrifty. Then go back to their offices and skip lunch so they can get all their work done, their hunger pangs temporary dulled by the recently shared optimism over how creative the staff has become.

The areas where the negatives and positives were close were ability to fulfill mission, quality of programming and quantity of programming. I would be interested to know if there was a correlation between those who felt the staff became more creative and those who cut programming and reported the quality of the programming increased. I know I sound cynical, but again I suspect that people soothed their concerns about cutting back on programming by convincing themselves that they had succeeded in providing higher quality with fewer resources.

I have had the same conversation internally and among staff at a number of places. So yes, you can accuse me of projecting my biases, but I can’t imagine those dialogs are anywhere near atypical.

When I read in the report about how resilient these nonprofits are, I think about the fact that it is actually individual people who provide the resiliency by redoubling their efforts out of dedication to a cause. I am pleased that many organizations are able to satisfy their personnel needs. But the situation still bears watching because the individual’s determination to soldier on may be masking a problem that will suddenly emerge with mass burnout or retirements.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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