The Arts Admin Job Offer: Know When To Walk Away…And Know When To Run

If I had a nickel every time I’ve seen a good manager leave the field because s/he walked into a toxic environment that burned their spirit to a crisp, I could have retired by now.

Simply put, that fire under your current frying pan may be hotter than you think.

As a result, it’s a job seeker’s responsibility to do their own due diligence before deciding.

Nothing Replaces Due Diligence

Adaptistration People 023

At the very least, due diligence should include the following:

  1. Reviewing the organization’s financials.
  2. Confirming the position’s funding source.
  3. Examining organizational structure and attrition rates.
  4. Checking Glassdoor.com reviews.
  5. Confirming duties and responsibilities.

Beyond that, items that should be obvious to check include confirming the pay rate and benefits. If the potential employer refuses to provide a pay range and instead focuses on “salary history” or relies on “commiserate with experience” starting point, that’s a red flag in my book. Vu Le has all sorts of things to say on those topics; if you aren’t already familiar with his blog, nonprofitaf.com, this is a good point of entry.

Finally, and to make sure we’re all on the same page, this article is written for those looking into entry level to middle management positions.

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into each of the above points.

Reviewing The Organization’s Financials

At the very least, you need to look at three years’ worth of 990s. You can find links to more than 70 professional orchestra financial disclosure pages at GuideStar.com via Adaptistration’s Orchestra Financial Reports resource:

Orchestra Financial Reports

Any organization not on that list can be tracked down by searching for the institution’s name at GuideStar.com. Keep in mind, some orchestras maintain a mutually exclusive 501(c)3 to oversee endowments so be sure you’re looking at the institutional information and not info for the endowment (they usually have similar names).

Here’s a quick and dirty overview of what to look for (disclaimer: this is not presented as a replacement for a thorough fiscal review).

  • Lines 8-11: These provide an overview of where an organization’s money is coming from. More often than not, seeing a 1/3 split for lines eight, nine, and 10 is a good thing. In this example, investment income is very low and that’s an indication you may want to ask about the organization’s endowment and any existing or planned capitalization campaigns. The more lopsided the ratio, the more at risk a group is for massive cutbacks if that revenue stream takes a hit. If line 11 is more than 10% of overall revenue, consider asking about why that’s the case.
  • Lines 14 & 15: These show you how much of the budget goes to salaries and benefits. In this example, you see a big ol’ zero for “Benefits Paid to members.” That’s a pretty good sign that the job won’t come with health care or retirement benefits so if the job listing mentioned them, you should absolutely ask about it and why the discrepancy exists. Having said that, there are perfectly reasonable explanations, not the least of which are 990s are a few season’s behind, so the group may have started a benefits program between the most recent 990 figures and now. But a good employer shouldn’t baulk at the question.
  • Lines 18 & 19: This is where you’ll see if the group is running surpluses or deficits. While not a universal rule, if you see a surplus/deficit figure that’s within two percent of the expense figure across all three years, that’s an indication the group may be massaging their numbers. Odds are, they’re rolling over accumulated debt or other expenses and at some point, in time, that’s going to come due. A better indicator for fiscal stability is consistent increases in total expenditures along with surpluses in the five to 10 percent range.

You can also check Part VII to see if any administrator compensation is listed. Even if the position you’re applying for falls below the $100k reporting threshold, you can still glean useful information for that information. For instance: is the executive director/CEO earning more than 4x over director/VP level positions? If so, that’s probably a red flag. You can find additional salary and benefit figures in Schedule J, Part II.

Confirming The Position’s Funding Source

This one should be comparatively straightforward and you can ask during any interview round.

What you’re looking for is whether the position is funded by a grant that has a firm expiration date. If so, that’s a potential red flag in that even if you do amazing work and everyone loves you to pieces, you could still be out of a job when the funding runs out.

Keep in mind, grant funded positions aren’t bad. They’re usually designed to help an organization develop their own long-term revenue to continue funding the position indefinitely.

Examining Organizational Structure And Attrition Rates

Unless you have a number of connections inside the organization, this one is a bit trickier and better served if you’ve been following the group for a year or more. If you don’t, I strongly recommend you begin stalking their website’s staff page(s) and track how often names and/or positions change.

Loads of change isn’t bad in and of itself. In many cases, it’s the result of one or more new executives coming into the group and the resulting restructuring triggers an attrition spike. It could also be the result of positive growth. As an organization grows, so do its needs and reorganizing the org chart is one way to accommodate those expanding needs.

At the same time, high turnover is also a sign of a toxic work environment and/or executive. Ask around and use your instincts during the interview rounds.

Checking Glassdoor.Com Reviews

This is another straightforward task: go to glassdoor.com and look up the organization. While many orchestras and operas don’t have entries, some do. For the latter, be sure to notice if the reviews are for interviews or actual positions. Listen to your gut when determining any review’s dependability.

An associated item here is the actual hiring process. Ideally, communication should be prompt, professional, and courteous. If you find a group with reviews on the interview process, you’ll often see the extreme ends of good/bad mentioned in the review.

Confirming Duties And Responsibilities

Arts admin extraordinaire, Joe Patti, has all sorts of good things to say on this topic over at his blog Butts In The Seats. He tends to rail against boilerplate job descriptions that include everything and the kitchen sink…plus the obligatory “and additional duties as required.”

Look at it this way: how much time do you think an employer will spend evaluating your efforts and results if they can’t spend the time to create a job description with duties and responsibilities that adequately reflect the actual work.

Spoiler: not much.

Final Thoughts

You’ve probably noticed that we haven’t talked about job interview tips and that’s by design. You’ll find plenty of online resources on that topic so there’s no need to dive into that deep end here.

We also haven’t talked about mission alignment. How much that matters is entirely up to you.

I know terrific arts managers that are passionate about a mission statement accurately reflecting institutional principles and guiding strategic decision making. I also know fabulous arts managers who could care less. The only advice I can offer here is make sure you size up how the person conducting the interview feels about it before offering up any perspective.

Lastly, I recommend you swing by a pair of articles from 2016 titled How and Why Orchestra Managers Change Jobs. They provide insight you won’t find anywhere else on whether your colleagues find greener grass when moving to a new position.

How And Why Orchestra Managers Change Jobs Part 1

How And Why Orchestra Managers Change Jobs Part 2

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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