Can Arts Orgs Play Moneyball With Their Staffs?

Ever since the movie Moneyball came out, I have been thinking about whether similar system can be applied to the arts. I mean a system by which baseball teams with small budgets were able to compete on par with the most well-funded teams by assembling a team of under utilized misfits? Heck, I am describing the place you work, right? It seems ready made for the arts!

I was happy to see a recent post by Shawn Harris on the TCG website raising the same general question. I agree with most of what Shawn suggests, including taking an objective look at different aspect of our operations and audiences to determine whether we are truly serving the interests of the community or just perpetuating assumptions.

One assumption I feel pretty safe in making is that what motivates people to attend a baseball game is different from what motivates people to attend an arts event. While celebrity is certainly a factor, people attend baseball games looking for an engaging contest. If they don’t know a lot about each of the players, that is okay if the game was well played. Can the same be said about an arts event? If someone is unfamiliar with a performance, will the fact that statistically speaking, the actors, while unknown, are the most effective performers in a period play?

Probably not. But then again, you shouldn’t be selling the show based on statistics anyway. Even though stats are a huge part of sports, that isn’t what primarily sells tickets. While a well-known artist would make it easier to sell a show, in the long run it is going to be better to take the “brains in the seats” view and work on engaging audiences in the organization, one aspect of which is going to be based on the quality of your personnel choices.

That is what I first started thinking about when I was considering whether Moneyball could be applied to the arts–are we hiring the best people? More over, are we actively seeking the best people or just casting a net and taking whatever swims our way?

I recall going to an Arts Presenters conference where Andrew Taylor talked about how a lot of arts organizations didn’t know how to effectively evaluate the skills of job candidates. He said there was a tendency to hire to the specifics of a job description rather than to the general needs of the position. Though he did mention an associate who hired a person who managed a Sears call center to run their ticket office after some unsatisfying interviews with people from the arts field, it seemed the exception rather than the rule. Taylor said he teaches his students to take control of the interview in order to illuminate their skills and illustrate how it applies to the criteria laid out in the job description.

While I am reluctant to put arts people out of work by suggesting that you look to hire those without any industry experience, I think it can help to always be mindful of the basic abilities you seek in employees. I once had lunch with some representatives from Enterprise Car Rentals and they were so impressed by the affability and service provided by one of the wait staff, they tried to recruit her at the end of our meal.

When was the last time you even thought about adding a person you met outside the context of the arts to your team? In fact, other than pursuing people who would increase the prestige of your company, when is the last time you tried to recruit someone way from another arts organization based on abilities and effectiveness alone?

When I think about the Moneyball model of finding success putting together a seemingly mismatched set of players few other teams desired, I wonder about our collective ability in the arts to effectively identify and cultivate the talent of people who aren’t necessarily shining in their current position. I know this can be tough in the arts where everyone wants to be the star actor/dancer/artist/director. Even if you are perceptive enough to see their talent lay elsewhere, people may be resistant to taking a different role.

The thing is, non profits should be pros at identifying and leveraging undiscovered skills. With all the volunteers we use to assist us with our programs and to serve on our boards, we should be championing seemingly unorthodox hiring decisions. But if Andrew Taylor is correct, the hiring practices in the arts are actually more orthodox than in the for profit sector.

If that is the case, perhaps we aren’t using our volunteers’ skills as effectively as we could, as well. That question starts to bring me back to my post last week featuring Aaron Hurst’s suggestion that certain volunteer programs may be a waste of time.

The research he cited found little difference in effectiveness between well- and poorly- managed programs involving less than 50 people. I wonder though if well managed programs might have beneficial side-effects for organizations in the form of improved hiring skills. In other words, the capacity to identify and employ highly capable people may be developed in the process of effectively doing the same thing with volunteers.

Info You Can Use: Volunteer Liability

An appreciative nod to the Gene Takagi at Non Profit Law blog for linking to a Charity Lawyer post about a non-profit’s liability in respect to volunteers.

Guest blogger Deanna Rader notes that a non-profit may be liable for the actions of their volunteers under a doctrine known as respondeat superior which holds that an employer can be responsible for the acts an employee commits in the course of executing their duties. Some states have extended this concept to include volunteers.

In this context, Rader suggests that care be taken in selecting and training volunteers.

* How will volunteers be utilized? The risk of liability increases as the volunteer is given more responsibility and independence. Carefully choose the responsibilities that will be given to volunteers. Also, there should be a clear delineation between the tasks performed by employees and those performed by volunteers.

* What selection criteria should be used? You should use care to ensure that the volunteers selected are fit to serve in the positions at your agency. Your selection criteria may differ based on the responsibilities given to different volunteers. If you are using volunteers to serve children, disabled individuals, or other vulnerable populations, your selection criteria may include a background investigation and criminal history check. If your volunteers sort food for a food bank serving adults, however, a background investigation may not be required.

* What training is necessary? Before putting volunteers to work, they need to be trained to perform the assigned tasks. Otherwise, you could be held liable for their negligent performance of those tasks if it causes injury to others. Also, the nonprofit organization could be held liable if a volunteer who is not properly trained injures himself or herself because of inadequate training.

* How will the volunteers be supervised? Volunteers should have appropriate supervision based on the tasks assigned. A warehouse volunteer who is performing physical labor may not need close supervision, whereas volunteers dealing with vulnerable populations may need to be closely monitored.

* How will problems be addressed? Although good volunteers provide invaluable assistance, bad volunteers can expose you to substantial liability. Do not be afraid to address problems head-on and terminate the volunteer relationship if a volunteer exhibits inappropriate behavior.

Rader also address injury that a volunteer might take in the course of the service to the non-profit. Employees are covered under worker’s compensation laws while volunteers are not. However, it is important to clearly delineate between the two categories of workers. In addition, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment to everyone who may enter their premises, regardless of employment status.

“An employer also has a duty to maintain safe working premises for an employee. Many states have applied this doctrine expressly to nonprofit organizations, requiring them to maintain a safe place for volunteers to work or finding them to be negligent in failing to provide a safe place for a volunteer to deliver services. This duty can apply even if the volunteer is working off premises while providing services for the nonprofit organization, making the nonprofit corporation liable for the actions or inactions of a third party.”

Among the steps Rader recommends taking are having volunteers sign a general waiver and release that informs them about the possible hazards they may face. She also mentions having volunteers work with a buddy or a team so they are never alone.

All this seems very valuable for the performing arts. I have worked in places where volunteers have done everything from ushering to construction to driving farm tractors. There has been ample opportunity for them to injure themselves or each others. We rent our facility out to groups and have had other people’s volunteers damage equipment on a number of occasions for which we held the renter liable.

On the flip side, performance groups often don’t have their own facilities and have their volunteers meet them at an unfamiliar place like my theatre to help them put up a show. In such a situation, you are dependent on the performance facility’s maintenance program and good practices to keep your volunteers safe.

Thank You, Volunteers

Tech Soup had a tweet linking to a post on HandsOn blog post containing tips for writing thank you notes to volunteers. One of my initial reactions to some of the suggestions like writing the notes out by hand and writing drafts first, made me think that if we had time to do that, we wouldn’t need the volunteers in the first place. We actually do hand write our Christmas cards to volunteers and follow HandsOn’s tips about personalizing the message by acknowledging things they have done or contribute to our efforts. But that is a really long undertaking.

While thinking about adding writing a first draft to the process for every person makes me groan, they are correct that the more you write, the better you get and the easier it is. Also, thanking everyone by hand once a year like we do at Christmas does make the process onerous. Acknowledging people throughout the year as they provide great service breaks the effort up a bit more. It is probably more impressive to the volunteer when they receive a note out of the blue in the middle of April than at a traditional time like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I have read many of the tips they offer before, though it is always helpful to be reminded. A tip they give that I have never really considered is the first one.

1) Focus on the volunteer.
Before you write the thank you note, try writing the volunteer’s address on the envelope and write it out by hand. As you’re writing their address, think about your relationship to the volunteer; think about where they’re living and how they’re serving. It will help you to write an individual message for that volunteer.

I think that addressing the envelop first and thinking about the volunteer is a good exercise for focusing your mind on what you want to say in the message. Often I will come to a person’s name on our list and my pen will sit poised over the paper as I try to recall all the contributions they have made. Addressing the envelop fills that time and can help you generate some thoughtful remarks as you think about them. The suggestion of thinking about where people are living intrigued me a little. I never really focused too much on that, but just thinking about the process of thinking of where my volunteers live reminded me that those who volunteered for the various organizations for which I have worked have been retirees living on fixed incomes and have invested a fair portion of their limited resources in travel and preparation for volunteering. Some of the best volunteers I have had were families in the lower income range where the parents were trying to instill the values one derives from volunteering.

As something of a corollary to this subject, the blog has a link in the right column to an Acrobat document, “The Nine Basic Rules for Volunteer Recognition.” It reiterates some of the same things about timing and degree of recognition.

1. Recognize . . . or else — The need for recognition is very important to most people. If volunteers do not get recognition for productive participation, it is likely that they will feel unappreciated and may stop volunteering with your program.

2. Give it frequently — Recognition has a short shelf life. Its effects start to wear off after a few days, and after several weeks of not hearing anything positive, volunteers start to wonder if they are appreciated. Giving recognition once a year at a recognition banquet is not enough.

3. Give it via a variety of methods — One of the implications of the previous rule is that you need a variety of methods of showing appreciation to volunteers.

4. Give it honestly — Don’t give praise unless you mean it. If you praise substandard performance, the praise you give to others for good work will not be valued. If a volunteer is performing poorly, you might be able to give him honest recognition for his effort or for some personality trait.

5. Recognize the person, not just the work — This is a subtle but important distinction. If volunteers organize a fund-raising event, for example, and you praise the event without mentioning who organized it, the volunteers may feel some resentment. Make sure you connect the volunteer’s name to it.

You will have to follow the link if you want the other 4 tips. The last tip reminded me of an embarrassing incident over 15 years ago when I was misquoted in a story about volunteers that made it sound like we used volunteers as cheap labor rather than that volunteers often provide a service which will often command a respectable wage. Thinking back on the incident and groaning a few years later, I realized it might have been better to focus more on what volunteers bring as individuals– mothering artists in the hospitality room, being as organized and motivational as a drill sergeant with a pleasant demeanor that made people forget how tired they were–rather than discussing them as a labor force. In many cases they are bringing the same passion for our cause as our employees are.

Stuff To Ponder: Volunteer Bill of Rights

One of the many items I bookmarked to write on when I returned from my holiday break was an entry Robert Eggers did on the Volunteer Bill of Rights he helped institute at DC Central Kitchen. He said he took his inspiration from a concept championed by restaurant reviewers in the 1960s and 70s that diners had rights and didn’t have to take what was set before them if it was sub-par. (Hard to imagine there was a time when you didn’t send cold food back to the kitchen.) Eggers says this is what drove restaurants to offer better service and improved and expanded diners’ culinary knowledge to the point where we are now focused on the provenience of our food. One result he says is that every city now has great dining establishments rather than just a few cities.

In the same way the Internet provides a channel for customer driven feedback, Eggers feels that encouraging volunteer feedback and involvement will drive innovation faster than hiring expensive consultants. (DC Central Kitchen has 14,000 people volunteer every year which certainly does represent a lot of brain power.)

DC Central Kitchen’s bill of volunteer rights is:

ALL volunteers have the right to:
* Work in a safe environment.
* Be treated with respect by all staff members.
* Be engaged in meaningful work and be actively included regardless of any physical limitations.
* Be told what impact your work made in the community.
* Ask any staff member questions about our work.
* Provide feedback about your experience.
* Receive a copy of our financial information or annual report upon request.

They want their volunteers to ask the tough questions that will help them operate better, but Eggers says the middle right is the most important.

“….but the most purposeful of these is the one right in the middle—the right to “be told what impact your work made in the community”. THAT’S the kicker. We want, and think it’s critical, that every nonprofit in America be prepared to answer that question, in detail. No more fuzzy, feel good platitudes. No more bromides, brothers and sisters—it’s about facts and figures. Verifiable, Hard Core, Detailed Deeds.”

And following his philosophy of using the feedback of volunteers to make DC Central Kitchen run better, he solicits the assistance of the reader and offers some himself.

“We are an open source organization, so feel free to use this Bill of Rights in your shop. Add more rights if you see fit. If they rock, let us know so we can adapt our version. Call if you want and we’ll talk about how we trained our staff to translate talking to volunteers about these rights into opportunities to elevate the idea of what we are doing, together, so that folks can’t wait to come back—with friends, time and wallets in tow.”