Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I face the music, or dance?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

If you could stand one more letter asking about Boards of non-profit arts organizations — or even point me in the right direction — I’d be very grateful!  I’ve been the school director for a small non-profit music organization for several months. The organization has two parts — there are performance choirs and then there’s the school.

But maybe it would be more accurate to say that there are two organizations, because I’ve been told that the school is “technically” for profit, meaning that only the performance choirs can receive grant money.  I’m not sure why, or even if, this is so, though I understand that we make more money charging for music lessons than we do sending out the performance choirs, whose members are paid a pittance that nonetheless exceeds the amount companies and civic organizations are willing to pay for being entertained by them.

The main problem: the performance-choir conductor is also Artistic Director of the entire organization, AND is Chair of the Board of Directors.  He is paid $20,000 a year for what’s supposed to be a 12-hour-a-week job, but in fact he doesn’t work nearly that much.  He lives a couple of hours away, so he only comes in once a week to rehearse, and not even that during the summer (or the Christmas holidays, or the Easter holidays, or St. Swithens’ Day!).  And whenever he can he schedules performances near his home rather than near the school, which means we’re not really serving our community.

Meanwhile, I work full-time (theoretically 40 hours a week but actually closer to 90, what with teaching as well as administrative work).  This huge job pays me $34,000 with no benefits.  The Board sees itself as my “BOSS” and reminds me of that often. In addition to the Chair, the Board members are 1.) one of the school’s teachers, who’s also the Board treasurer; 2.) a member of one of the performance choirs who writes the grant applications; 3.) the mother of a former student, who is paid to be secretary; 4.) the mother of a current student, who is paid to be DIrector of Development; 5.) another one of our teachers; and 6.) a lawyer who takes voice lessons from the treasurer.  In other words, NOBODY is without connections to the school and thus a personal agenda.

The school went downhill financially during my predecessor’s tenure, to the point where we’ll probably have to give up half of our space.  But when I say I need help with fundraising, I get, “Sallie Jo managed it.”   I’m expected to do everything Sallie Jo did but with more “Board oversight,” which means micromanagement and no actual help.  That’s not their role, apparently—their role is being my superiors, scrutinizing me, complaining to each other about me, and occasionally sending me a condescending note giving me reprimands and further orders.

As a seasoned professional who is keeping the place together single-handedly, I consider these missives insulting at best. But there is no one I can appeal to. Do you have any suggestions? Advice? Articles you could point me to? (Templates of letters of resignation?)   I’m near the end of my rope.  Signed,

Hanging on By a Thread

Dear Hanging:

This is like one of those children’s puzzles, “Can you spot what’s wrong with this picture?”  There are so many things wrong that even the youngest child can detect some of the problems, while others are so subtle that older children will be challenged.  Or, in other words: what a mess!

Once you’ve said that the Artistic Director is the chair of the Board, you’ve already described an organization in trouble.  One function of an arts Board is, indeed, to support the vision of the Artistic Director, but the other is to counter-balance that vision with business acumen and an awareness of what a nonprofit arts organization owes the community.  Even if every single member of the Board weren’t compromised in the way you’ve described, the organization itself would be hopelessly compromised by having a single person leading both the Board and the staff.

If the Board were independent, the fact that you and the Artistic Director both report directly to it would provide a healthy balance: he would say “I want to do blah-blah-blah” and you would say “blah-blah-blah costs three times as much money as we’ve raised in any year in the history of the organization” and the Board would weigh these competing points of view and make a decision.  In those circumstances, it would be a good thing that the Board knows it’s your boss—that would mean the Board knew that you and the Artistic Director were co-equals reporting to a common authority rather than an inferior (you) reporting to a superior (him).

But with a Board that’s essentially an extension of the Artistic Director’s personality, you have the worst of both worlds: multiple superiors and no equal colleagues.  No wonder you’re feeling besieged and insulted: you were hired with the title of a director and the status of a secretary.

That’s what the salary situation means: they’ll pay you less than half (on a per-hour basis) of what the Artistic Director makes, because he has more than twice your power.  The fact that you’re also earning less than the singing lawyer’s administrative assistant is just icing on the cake.

And now we get into the subtle stuff: what, exactly, is this nonsense about the school’s being “technically” for profit?  It either is, or it isn’t; it either files a Form 990 informational return with the IRS, or pays taxes on its profits like any other business.  It’s hardly unusual for an arts organization to run a school whose earnings help sustain the actual performances: most likely that’s the real function of the School of the American Ballet.  It’s a prestige training program for the New York City Ballet, and as a result it’s also a cash cow for the company.  But the Nonprofiteer strongly doubts there’s any ambiguity in the status of either the ballet company or the school, whether they’re independent or intertwined.  All the hair goes up on the back of her neck when she hears the word “technically;” in the nonprofit sector it almost always means some corner is being cut that shouldn’t be.

So let’s review: you’re overworked and underpaid in an organization where your input is ignored but your grunt labor is expected and taken for granted.  This may also be an organization with a dodgy relationship to the laws of your state concerning nonprofits and community benefit, and the laws of the United States concerning nonprofits and taxation.  Given all this—surprise!  You’re having a terrible time.

The Nonprofiteer ran a small nonprofit herself—a choir, as it happens—back before the glaciers melted.  It was a complete debacle, though it did provide one of the world’s fastest educations in nonprofit management.  It took her nine months to realize that she was on a dead-end path, and to quit.  She urges you to be more expeditious.

It’s a terrible economy and no doubt you want to work in the music world that you love.  But you’d be better off working as a temp and looking for a job with a functional school or music group than staying where you are and having your spirit ground down by fighting against impossible odds.

The Nonprofiteer’s advice: give two weeks’ notice and start the New Year off fresh.  As for templates of resignation letters, the simplest are the best.  Justifiably angry as you are, don’t burn any bridges.  Just write, “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m sorry that I will be unable to continue as the director of [Name] School.  My last day will be [date].  Thank you for having given me the opportunity to work with you.  Sincerely, [you].”  If you just can’t stand the thought of writing something so polite, write a letter that expresses how you really feel—and then put it under the chestnuts and roast away.

Submit your letter today, and you’ll have yourself a merry little Christmas.  You deserve no less.

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I face the music, or dance?”

  1. Dear Nonprofiteer, . . . And we all lived happily ever after, thanks to you! « The Nonprofiteer Says:

    […] was at this time one year ago that I wrote to you about my horrible “School Director” job. Your reply helped me see that it was not only horrible, but […]

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