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.