I am just finishing a year as an ED for a small nonprofit arts organization which has been struggling for almost all of its 30 year history. We have a 2-person admin team and most things seem to fall to me–from grant writing to plumbing.
While we have met our challenges this year and will not go into the red, I have not been able to realize the high hopes that I started this job with last September.
We face the challenge of an old, crumbling and uncomfortable building. We have a board-–of people I personally like–which is resistant to fundraising responsibility but eager to micro-manage small details. I have tried hard to develop a grant campaign but found no funders willing to support our projects. So we limp along on tuition revenue–enough to secure breakeven but not enough to undertake new initiatives.
I try to keep telling myself that this is the way of things in this economy but I am becoming very depressed and am having a hard time getting myself motivated this fall. I am not in a position to walk away from this job and as an older woman in this job market I am not optimistic about other prospects.
And more whining – my office is a broom closet.
Signed, Depressed in the Dumps
The situation you describe is serious but not hopeless. It only feels hopeless because you’re probably trying to solve all the organization’s problems at once, when they need to be solved step by step. The central problem you identify is the Board–for without its fundraising support, you’ll never be able to expand, or repair your building, or get out of the broom closet.
Sit down with your Board president and explain, in the straightforward terms you’ve done here, that the only reasonable source of expansion capital for the group is the Board of Directors and that this Board of Directors seems unwilling to answer your urgent calls for its participation. Propose two things: that you and the President get the Board engaged in a serious effort at recruiting new and motivated Board members, and that once you complete this effort (which should be doable in about 3 months) you conduct a training session for new and veteran Board members alike in which they will learn to ask for money. If the President agrees (and there’s no reason why s/he shouldn’t), this will give the Board something to do that will keep it from micromanaging you AND will result in a new focus on fundraising, even before the current members have been trained to do that work themselves. Most Boards–and most EDs–find the process of brainstorming about new recruits and then conducting recruitment breakfasts or lunches or dinners or midnight snacks an exhilarating one, and it sounds as though a bit of exhilaration wouldn’t come amiss right now.
Once you’ve set this in motion, stop pounding your head against the wall with general-purpose grant applications and go looking for funders who will pay for “capacity building,” a phrase encompassing everything from updating your computer system to teaching your Board how to do its job. Ask for money to hire a Board development consultant, and use that person to help push the Board through the recruitment process or to give them training or both. Your grant proposal should stress that the function of this activity is to enable you to reduce your dependence on grants in the future; this goes over big with people whose job it is to give out grants, contradictory as that may seem.
Finally, consider the possibility of framing this entire project as a prelude to a campaign to improve or replace the building. These are terrible times for capital campaigns, and your Board will figure that out soon enough; but they’ll be more excited about expanding their number, and more expansive in their thinking about who in the community should join them, if they think there’s a possibility someone will want to put a name to a bricks-and-mortar project. You can always disabuse them of this notion later–or, if you don’t, maybe they’ll become properly agitated about the condition of your “office.”
If there is anyplace else in the building your desk can be placed, move there now–being in a windowless space makes everything seem darker, both literally and figuratively, than it actually is. You’re the ED–pull rank and choose someplace better to sit. “Better” may be a term of art meaning “loathesome instead of positively grotesque,” but at this point a change is as good as a feast.
And if all the foregoing sounds exhausting rather than energizing, then do two more things: take a week off NOW and spend it sitting in a bubble bath or hiking through autumn leaves and not thinking about this place at all; and then come back and use the computer in your broom closet to start job-hunting. It’s a bad economy and older women do face discrimination in the workplace, but you’ll be able to find small arts organizations with better attitudes and atmospheres which will be thrilled to have you. You’ll also be able to find large arts organizations whose development, marketing and education departments could all use someone with your background–and which won’t expect you to fix the toilet.
Finally, please try to remember what made you take the job in the first place. If you love this art form, see if you can’t get back in touch with that fact and with the way that working for this agency contributes to the art form’s growth. If you don’t love the form–if you took the job because it was a job, or because you love “the arts” and figured any one was as good as any other–then this is never going to satisfy you, no matter how well-restored the building or cooperative your Board or spacious your office. Conversely, if this kind of artistic work is the love of your life, then you’ll fix toilets and make coffee and browbeat Board members to make sure it thrives.
Check in and let us all know how things go for you.