Emerging Leaders Series: How Investing in You is Good for Your Organization

This December, I graduated with my Master’s in Public Administration from Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. During the graduation reception, Dean David Birdsell argued for the importance of investing in one’s self through education and opportunity. But that investment, he said, must flow two ways. He urged us to ensure that the organizations we give our time and talents to are returning the investment and giving back to us in opportunity. Dean Birdsell invited us to scrutinize the policies and procedures of nonprofits as employers and to choose wisely.

Dean Birdsell’s comments helped crystallize observations I had made about Human Resources strategy in arts organizations. In my experience, Human Resources is often seen as an after thought to the mission, vision, and fundraising needs that drive an organization. Many arts organizations neglect to treat their employees as investments and lack plans for employee growth, learning and sustainability. By doing so, I think that arts nonprofits miss out on an opportunity to cultivate innovation and dynamic leadership from within to reach their full potential within the sector.

When I have read the strategic plans and assessments of arts organizations I have worked for, surveyed employees have noted that they feel under appreciated and lack meaningful opportunities to contribute new ideas to the organization. From my experience, I have found these feelings to be particularly strong among younger employees who work in entry to mid-level positions. These employees, who are my peers, often feel they have to leave the organization to advance in job title or salary, or simply use their talents. For example, a colleague of mine who worked in development departments in smaller visual arts organizations all around New York City explained that the only way she had found to grow was to move frequently from job to job – sometimes as often as every year. This makes me wonder about what is lost organizationally when nonprofits don’t invest in their employees and a young, ambitious, talented person has to move on in order to gain new skills and stretch their professional muscles.

What if, instead of looking outwards for inspiration and innovation, arts organizations looked inwards? While some nonprofits offer professional development incentives, such as tuition reimbursement, I feel that investment in staff should go beyond monetary rewards. If staff members do take the time to invest in their own development through education, they need to have the opportunity to share their new skills. Human Resources policy needs to be more than an outdated employee handbook and email reminders about office policies and procedures. An innovative HR strategy should connect to an organization’s mission and cultivate the kind of values they project externally, internally.

While some larger cultural institutions have sprawling HR departments, smaller arts nonprofits often do not have the resources to invest in a full-time HR staff member. No matter their size, arts organizations should have a coherent HR structure that enables employees to feel comfortable innovating. Employees should know where they stand thanks to regular reviews and a clear policy and benchmarks for promotions, raises and title changes. By creating a transparent culture around expectations for performance, employees can cultivate values that are in sync with the organization and get a stronger grasp on what new ideas are feasible.

HR policies should support employee risk taking and idea sharing. Employees should be able to suggest new approaches and there should be a consistent process to determine whether those approaches support the mission. Opportunities should exist to enable and value interdepartmental collaborations and individual work beyond one’s particular job description to help plant the seeds for innovation.

There is plenty of literature that exists about nonprofit best practices when it comes to working with staff, and I will not belabor those points here. The idea I want to put forth here is that HR strategy should viewed in terms of investing in employees and should be in sync with organization’s overall mission. Only then can an organization reach its full potential to do the important work it sets out to do.

I’m interested to hear from readers who both feel that their organization has an approach that supports innovation, and others who have run into stumbling blocks. Does your organization have meaningful ways for employees to invest in themselves and what are they? If someone learns a new skill are they encouraged to share it with their colleagues and apply it to their work? What kind of support is necessary from organizational leadership to sustain innovative HR policies? How might the traditional nonprofit structure and hierarchy need to change for organizational innovation to take root at every level?

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.

  • I have a Ph.D in organizational psychology (from CUNY Grad Center and I taught at Baruch- neither here nor there, just happy to see a CUNY person out there.) I’ve worked in HR in several Fortune 50 companies and in one non-profit (financial services and hi-tech) and now I’m an artist. Worlds colliding. Here’s what I’ve seen: the problems you present are common, to an astounding degree, to all organizations I’ve experienced. truth is, you can have an army of HR people and change little to nothing about these things. Here’s what I see: while the problems exist everywhere, some organizations are better at working through it than others. Why? #1 top leadership demands that all leaders do something about it, demonstrate it. #2 an environment of personal accountability for career development exists. #3 there exists at least one HR person with a professional HR background and education leading the work from behind the scenes. I say this not because I’m a Ph.D snob, but because I have seen, time and time again, the irreplaceable value an experienced PhD adds to these initiatives. We simply see the HR world differently – as psychologists and business people. I ramble. I say all this in hopes of helping in general and specifically as an offer to volunteer with an art-based non-profit and help you get in the path to strong employee engagement. seriously.

    • Eleanor Whitney

      Thank you, Jill, for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I really like what you say about personal accountability for career development, and think that needs to come from all sides. Sometimes I feel the nonprofit arts world is especially competitive because so many people have advanced degrees and experience, yet choose to work in the arts, so there’s a feeling that you are replaceable. Like you say, these issues exist whether a company is for-profit, nonprofit, large or small. I think we need to have a serious conversation about valuing people – which would also demand cultural shift in work over all. And thanks, go CUNY!

  • John


    Your article reads really well, but most importantly it strikes at a very important chord when it comes to professional development within arts organizations.

    I work for an art museum in NYC after working for numerous for-profit, production-based outfits. Where the only way to grow was precisely that: job-hoping.

    At this place I feel like there is definitely a strong commitment to professional growth and development, but after reading your article I realized that it does not come from HR at all. That department mostly deals will the more prosaic aspects of HR: pay, benefits, hours, vacation. It seems that that void has been filled by Department Directors and a general attitude of support to colleagues. For example employees are supported in pursuing other enriching opportunities that add to their skill set and general outtake in life. Examples are residencies, sabbaticals, support for going to professional conferences on museum time, and an emphasis on the quality of the final product over the mechanics of how we get there. We do look at process but not in a tyrannical way.

    Whether that is a good model for other, or not, I can’t say. Maybe it would not be possible in a larger institution, but one thing that could be transferable is the flexibility in thinking and understanding, and in sharing your employees interests, or at least understanding them. In that respect the Direct supervisor has an advantage over the HR Manager. And in that case I guess is up to the supervisor to communicate and work closely with HR to make sure their staff is allowed to grow and become a fuller person.

    • Eleanor Whitney

      What fantastic insight and it sounds like you work for a very forward thinking organization! I have worked for museums in the past and experienced varied levels of support for personal and professional enrichment. I think you hit the nail on the head – it’s about an organizational commitment to an employees professional growth and development and I think this is not just about HR policy, but organizational culture. I think what I would like to advocate for is a shift in the culture of many arts nonprofits to be truly aware, and attuned, to the potential for growth in their employees and supporting different avenues and paths for that growth. Thank you again for your contribution!

    • John –

      You raise a really interesting point that an emerging leader’s Department Director or direct manager plays a critical role in what kinds of professional development opportunities are encouraged. Your post reminded me, though, that management styles can vary greatly between departments for a variety of reasons, including differing personal styles, training, and resource allocation.

      If an organization, like yours, tasks managers with the responsibility of developing emerging leaders, it seems important that the HR department checks and balances across departments to ensure that equal opportunity and encouragement is available to all. Supervisor trainings and regular checks in, without managers present, could be a way to ensure fair treatment.

      Thanks for your input!