Possible Setback In Push To Eliminate Unpaid Internships

Just before Christmas Non-Profit Quarterly called attention to a situation of some concern. Recently the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned an administrative law judge’s ruling and determined that employees were not protected when they advocated for non-employees.

In this particular case, it was employees of Amnesty International  signing a petition supporting paying unpaid interns who were determined to lack protections. However, as the article points out, this ruling would be equally applicable to other categorized as non-employees.

Molly Lee Kaban, an attorney with Harrison Bridgett in San Francisco, who observes that “other types of nonemployees, such as gig workers and other independent contractors, will not be able to rely on support from employees within an organization to advocate on their behalf. Uber employees, for example, can potentially be disciplined or terminated for advocating on behalf of nonemployee drivers who want to be classified as employees. This could lessen the pressure on employers to make changes.”

In the non-profit arts this might translate to a lack of protection for orchestra musicians who were advocating for better pay for substitute musicians who were classified as independent contractors. Similar to the Amnesty International case, employees of an arts organization advocating that interns be paid could likewise run into problems with their employers.  Obviously, labor law is not my area of expertise. There may be other rules and contract agreements that would forestall concerns about reprisals.

The are shades of gray and nuance to the rules. The NLRB’s basis for overturning the administrative law judge’s decision was based on the board’s interpretation of Amnesty International executive director’s comments as expressions of concern where the judge’s view was there were implications of reprisals.

Even if independent contractors do have more of a basis for being considered employees because they are paid, this ruling undermines the effort to eliminate the use of unpaid interns in both the for- and non-profit world.

As the National Law Review article on the case notes, trends are indicating potential barriers to graduate students, among others, efforts to unionize as well:

The NLRB has been signaling a hesitancy to impose obligations on employers outside the traditional employment context. It has proposed exempting paid undergraduate and graduate students from the NLRA, for example. Over the last several years, as employers are forced by the low employment rate to increase their use of nonemployees, unions have increased their efforts to expand the NLRA’s reach by organizing non-traditional workers, including temporary campaign workers and graduate students.

Lessons From The Arts: Providing Direction To Experts

I neglected to note who had posted it on Twitter, but an article in The Economist about what the arts can teach business came across my feed today.

One of the first examples was an exercise used by a professor at the Saïd Business School at Oxford which asked MBA students to try their hand at conducting a choir.

The first to take the challenge was a rather self-confident young man from America. It didn’t take long for him to go wrong. His most obvious mistake was to start conducting without asking the singers how they would like to be directed, though they had the expertise and he was a complete tyro.

…The session, organised by Pegram Harrison, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship, cleverly allowed the students to absorb some important leadership lessons. For example, leaders should listen to their teams, especially when their colleagues have specialist knowledge. All they may need to do, as conductors, is set the pace and then step back and let the group govern itself.

It was noticeable, too, that the choir managed fairly well even if the conductors were just waving their batons in an indeterminate fashion. The lesson there, Mr Harrison said, was that leaders can only do so much damage—provided they do not attempt to control every step of the process. The whole exercise illustrated it is possible for a lesson to be instructive and entertaining at once.

While these lessons seemed to be laid on with a heavy hand, I couldn’t help think back to the video I posted yesterday which showed the first opera rehearsal with the singers and orchestra together.

There, the discussion of the role of the conductor and prompter was all about helping the artists to maintain pacing and remind them where they were in the process. That is pretty much what the passage I cited above discussed, so heavy handed or not, the use of a music ensemble to illustrate groups can be productive if left to govern themselves is valid.

I have come across the idea that performing arts groups can be used as examples of teams joining together to execute complex projects before. However, there was an example of the value of acting lessons I had never come across or considered:

But Mr Walker-Wise says that middle managers are often delivering words that are not their own (because they were devised by head office) or trying to inspire staff to meet an objective that was set by someone else. “The lesson from acting is how do I connect to this message without betraying my own personality,” he argues.

I am not sure that I would want acting to be valued for helping people to become better liars, but there are definitely times when we all need to learn to subsume our personal feelings in order organize others to accomplish a task. The military does this by instilling a sense of discipline and obedience, but their methods are not ones the general public will easily accept. Acting and other skills derived from performance training present an alternative method to get people working together as teams.

Feeling Less Conflicted About Conflicts of Interest

As the year comes to a close and you start attending parties hosted by different non-profit organizations, it may appear that the same people seem to be involved with every non-profit organization in town. With the flurry of fund raising appeals that are made this time of year, you may rightly wonder how these people balance their advocacy among all the groups with whom they are involved. Someone must be getting the short shrift, right?

It is with those types of questions in mind that I recently wrote a piece on ArtsHacker covering a conflict of interest article that appeared on Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ).

There were a couple points I took away from the NPQ article by David Renz:

  • Where US conflict of interest rules address private benefit and financial gain, European rules take a broader view encompassing conflicting influences associated with being involved with many groups as in my example.
  • Not all conflicts of interests are equally severe. Openly recognizing, evaluating and accepting the risks involved can be beneficial to a non-profit organization.
  • It isn’t enough for a person to abstain from voting on an issue with which they are involved, they must abstain from exerting influence on others. And the organization must actively guard against the exercise of said influence
  • Disclosures of conflict should be made on an ongoing basis to the whole board rather than an annual ritual to be filed away or evaluated separately by an individual or small committee. In my mind, this contributes to organizational culture that has a constructive and educated understanding of conflicts of interest.
  • As is the case with policies and bylaws, don’t copy yours from another organization or the IRS boilerplate. Create a conflict of interest policy that meets the particular needs of your organization.

This post is an abridged version of my ArtsHacker post which only excerpted part of the excellent NPQ article. If your New Year’s resolutions are going to include taking a pro-active, less anxiety-driven approach to conflicts of interest, it may be worth taking a deeper look at both.


Toward Crafting Better Conflict Of Interest Policy And Practice

A Pulse Just Means The Person Is Alive, Not That It Is Healthy or Happy

Joi Ito who serves on the boards of both the Knight Foundation and MacArthur Foundation wrote a piece for Wired on the importance of finding the right metrics for measuring non-profit effectiveness.

He notes that if you use circulation as a measure, public libraries have been failing for years given that circulation has been continually falling.

But if you only looked at that figure, you’d miss the fascinating transformation public libraries have undergone in recent years. They’ve taken advantage of grants to become makerspaces, classrooms, research labs for kids, and trusted public spaces in every way possible…If we had focused our funding to increase just the number of books people were borrowing, we would have missed the opportunity to fund and witness these positive changes.

As I have quoted/paraphrased Carter Gillies many times, including just last week, just because you can measure it doesn’t mean the result is relevant or useful to you.

Ito writes that identifying relevant metrics is difficult and there is a tendency to default to what is easiest to measure.

The problem is that one pretty much never deals with an issue that is not part of a complex, complicated system. Indications of that problem being addressed successfully is not an indication that everything is running well.

He uses the example of iron levels as a measure of health. While iron is important as a measure of anemia, it can’t tell you about the health of a body by itself. All the medical tests you can conduct can’t tell you about the happiness of the person. (I daresay being subjected to all the tests will be detrimental to the happiness of the person.)

Ito goes on, (my emphasis)

…simple metrics often aren’t enough when it comes to quantifying success. They typically are easier to measure, and they’re not unimportant.


Similarly, while I believe rigor and best practices are important and support the innovation and thinking going into these metrics when it comes to all types of philanthropy, I think we risk oversimplifying problems and thus having the false sense of clarity that quantitative metrics tend to create.

One of the reasons philanthropists sometimes fail to measure what really matters is that the global political economy primarily seeks what is efficient and scalable. Unfortunately, efficiency and scalability are not the same as a healthy system.

As an example of the breadth and long term vision and planning that is perhaps necessary to employ, Ito cites the 1300 Ise Shrine in Japan which is completely rebuilt by craftsman every 20 years, supported by a supply chain management plan operating on a scope of 200 years. The measure of success of the shrine is entirely opposite the expectations of growth and scalability placed on most non-profit entities today.

The lumber mostly comes from the shrine’s forest managed in 200 year time scales as part of a national afforestation plan dating back centuries. The number of people working at Ise Shrine isn’t growing, the shrine isn’t trying to expand its business, and its workers are happy and healthy—the shrine is flourishing. Their primary concern is the resilience of the forest, rivers, and natural environment around the shrine. How would we measure their success and what can we learn from their flourishing as we try to manage our society and our planet?

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