If Only These Problems Were Myths Of A Past Age

If you have read Ve Le’s Non-Profit AF blog, you know that he often frames serious topics with a bit of humor, often extolling vegan cuisine and his obsession with the Oxford comma. Frequently though, he will go into full entertainment mode riffing on a theme and applying it to the non-profit world.

A couple weeks ago, he wrote a post recasting Greek myths as if they occurred in world run as a non-profit. With a hurricane recently piling on to the problems which have faced Puerto Rico over the last few years and another heading toward Florida, non-profits are going to be mobilizing to help affected communities recover. It seemed like a good time to point to humorous content before groups had to seriously dive in.

Le addresses a number of stories, but here are some of my favorites. In his retelling of the Trojan horse, the horse doesn’t contain soldiers who spread out to slay the city’s defenders:

The following days, they joined the boards of directors of several organizations in the city. They never read board packets, always stopped much more knowledgeable staff from taking bold actions, caused missed quorum, insisted on golf tournaments, and gradually ruined morale. And that was how the city of Troy fell.

In Le’s retelling of the story of Echo who had been cursed by Hera to repeat only what other people say:

One day, Echo met Narcissus and fell in love with him. “I should start a nonprofit,” he said to her. She repeated, “start a nonprofit.” He ran off and founded a nonprofit that gave used togas to poor people abroad, and Echo was heartbroken. But joke’s on Hera, because eventually, Echo became a nonprofit consultant who mainly repeated what the staff says, and boards thought she was so smart and she got paid a ton of money.

My favorite story was Le’s version of Hercules’ 12 Labors:

Those were: Plan a silent auction, diversify a board, give someone feedback, get everyone to track their expense receipts, conduct a 360 assessment without someone getting hurt, endure an icebreaker that involves making random mouth sounds, fire someone who is really nice but sucks at their job, call out a major donor for being a jerk, translate a budget into a funder’s own budget format, get more than ten likes on a social media post about an upcoming event, get a several people’s schedules to align for a meeting, and save enough for retirement.

There are about six-seven stories in all and Le has promised a part two which hasn’t surfaced yet. What I appreciate about Vu Le’s writing style is that the problems he addresses are obviously sources of frustration and anxiety for folks in the non-profit sector, but he skewers them so satirically you can feel a slight sense of relief at having an ally by your side that understands.

Org Culture More Important Than Artistic Reputation

A couple weeks ago Aubrey Bergauer hosted a LinkedIn conversation with Karen Freeman from Advisory Board for the Arts (ABA) to discuss what mattered most to arts professionals as they sought jobs in the arts. Freeman discussed a survey ABA conducted where they asked people to prioritize between different situations in order to drill down to what really mattered. An example Freeman gives is would you rather have great pay, but so-so benefits or a lower pay rate but with better benefits.

Among the criteria people had to prioritize were things like artistic reputation, work from home, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), shared governance, professional development, etc., They had over 1500 respondents from organizations around the world, though with a slightly larger representation by U.S. based groups.

Freeman shared four findings among the many that she found most interesting. The first one revealed that respondents felt their current organization had medium healthcare benefits, good management, good job security, middle of the road flexibility with work hours, fairly good progress in diversity and equity and selective transparency. Freeman notes that a majority of respondents felt their organizations operated at the highest level of artistic quality which she attributes akin to a Lake Woebegone view that everyone is above average.

The second finding is perhaps the most interesting one because it provides insight into what arts organizations can do to retain employees (~13:30 in the video). In terms of what people valued most, Inclusive Culture was valued most and Other Office, which encompassed office space and technology fell at the lowest end of the range. Inclusive culture encompasses transparency, accountability, inclusive decision-making along with diversity, inclusion and equity.

Second most important was flexibility which includes flexible hours and work from home. Next is advancement, including opportunity to advance and supervise. Next is Manager which involves good manager, professional development and internal recognition. Health care and leave came next. Second to last was artistic reputation and community import.

This raises some interesting questions. There are already surveys that indicate trumpeting artistic excellence, while important, isn’t a top draw for audiences. Now we see it is almost at the bottom in terms of what organizational staff value. So perhaps it is time to examine the amount of emphasis being placed upon it.

I should note though that it isn’t clear how many of the respondents were creators and performers. Those groups may rate artistic reputation much higher than administrative staff.

Skipping to the fourth slide (~19:25) provides a little insight. When broken down by job role, people in the C-suite (aka highest paid person’s opinion) care most about artistic reputation (even more than artistic department) along with job accountability, manager quality and transparency. C-suite place least emphasis on job schedule flexibility, work from home and DEI.

When broken down by generation (~16:40), the starkest differences were that artistic reputation was most important to baby boomers and DEI was most important to Gen Z respondents.

Freeman also mentioned that they ran some simulations to make up for some potential flaws inherent to the surveying methodology they used to get the above results. In those simulations, when choosing between higher pay or artistic reputation, 54% of people would take the job with higher pay at a place with no reputation for artistic quality.

A second simulation they ran provided the choice between a place that had high pay, but hierarchical decision making, low transparency and accountability, and performative DEI against an organization with better culture on all these dimensions, but lower pay. In that case, 63% of people would take a job with the better work culture at the expense of better pay.

This was some new data for me insofar as what I thought were the start of trends are far more deeply held values than I anticipated. If you are similarly surprised, take a look at the video.

Strippers Ask Actors Equity’s Help Securing Safe Work Environment

A couple weeks ago I caught an NPR story about a group of strippers at a bar in LA who were working to unionize under the auspices of Actors’ Equity Association.  The dancers had been dismissed and locked out after complaining and petitioning the bar’s ownership to improve working conditions, both in terms of the physical performance environment and protection from aggressive clients. After months of striking outside the bar’s parking lot, the dancers filed to join Actors’ Equity.

One of the reasons why this story grabbed my attention was that I made a post in 2021 about how Actors’ Equity had decided to significantly lower the barriers to union membership. The union essentially provided automatic membership to members of sister unions like SAG-AFTRA, AGMA and AGVA as well as anyone who was enrolled in the union candidate program. The candidate program, which required accumulating points for performing in specific types of roles in venues operating under a union classification, was scrapped in favor of the new Open Access program which just requires that you have worked professionally as an actor or stage manager in the United States.

In reviewing the program, I noticed Open Access membership is only available until May 2023 so we will have to see how membership is handled after that. However, I initially viewed the union’s willingness to go to bat for these dancers as an extension of the Open Access program. They didn’t nudge the performers toward other unions like AVGA which represents variety/cabaret performers or SEIU which the NPR story says another group of strippers joined about 25 years ago.  I similarly wondered why the dancers approached Equity rather than another union. Was it due to the union’s presence in small performance venues in LA or perhaps Open Access has made the union appear more welcoming.

It will be interesting to see how the efforts of the dancers to unionize ends up. Likewise, I will try to keep an eye for more news on the Open Access program to see if it continues/evolves after May 2023 and if the effort achieves the diversity, equity and inclusion goals Actors’ Equity intends.

I should mention, the NPR story doesn’t just report on the strike but includes four discrete profiles of the dancers for additional perspective.

NPR Series May Help Expand Conversation About Theatre in US

Keep your radio tuned and your ears open to your local NPR station for the next month or so, especially if you are a theatre professional. The network is doing a series over the next five weeks about the 75th anniversary of the regional theatre movement. In a piece that aired this morning, they provide a little bit of a preview of the topics they are going to hit on from the impact of Covid, to economic concerns, regional theatres as a feeder to Broadway and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

The short piece mentions many of the conversations and activities which have unfolded over the last few years, from the mass resignations at Victory Gardens Theatre; the “We See You White American Theater” statement; the viability of subscription model and questions about the utility of the non-profit governance structure:

Theaters also started rethinking subscription plans that prioritize well-off people who can purchase a season’s worth of prime seats in advance, while leaving everyone else scrambling for leftovers. And they began reconsidering the current, frustrating governance model at most non-profits, where theater artists must answer to a volunteer board of directors, often with little theater expertise, which has all of the authority and none of the accountability.

It may be useful to have these topics discussed by an outlet outside of the usual theatre channels. Being able to point to NPR stories may end up being like the consultant effect where an outside “expert” repeats everything internal staff has been saying resulting in decisions to mobilize to achieve important goals.

Most board members and patrons don’t read American Theatre and related information sources, but many do listen to NPR and find it a credible information source. The NPR series can provide an entree for conversation or simply raise awareness among the greater community involved with arts and cultural entities around the country.