People first

by Jini Stolk

Those of us in the arts don’t need to be reminded that our most important resources are people: those who create the art, support the art, and engage in the art. But our work can be so intense that I think we sometimes forget to care for ourselves and each other. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s focus on decent work in the non-profit sector.

We’re all blessed with colleagues and employees who are motivated by the desire to make a difference, to have work that’s personally meaningful and meaningful to the world. The least we can promise in return is:

  • Fair and equitable hiring
  • Pay that allows people to support themselves and their families, over a lifetime career
  • As many alternative benefits as we can provide (because that pay will never be as high as in some other careers)
  • The opportunity for supportive guidance and personal and professional growth
  • A humane and caring workplace
  • A genuine connection to the mission and the art

Vu Le always provides wise advice, and I like the 10 agreements he recommends we make to ourselves as we go about the challenging work of making the world a better place, including: assuming the best intentions of each other; providing feedback honestly and directly; and not forming cliques or spreading gossip. (In this he’s joining another reputable anti-gossip advocate, Pope Frances.)

An organization rife with internal conflict will mirror that in outside relationships. Maxwell King, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, warns arts and other nonprofits that foundations will “pay careful attention to a situation where things seem to be in turmoil.”

If you find yourself in a place where leadership staff is burned out, unsure, or unsupported, or where people feel they’re faced with so many demands that they’re not up to successfully fulfilling them, leadership coaching might be advisable.

It all starts, as a friend recently reminded me, by honestly confronting the hiring and employment challenges nonprofits face. Jon Stahl’s interesting website says that “If nonprofits want to successfully compete for talent — and keep good people around for the long haul – they need to pay enough so that money isn’t an issue, then out-compete other employers on meaning, relationships, autonomy and opportunity.” He warns against a number of unspoken, unacknowledged and harmful employment practices. “Most nonprofits would rather spend additional dollars growing their team or launching new programs and accept turnover as a “fact of life” than invest in retaining their best people for the long haul.” Also: “The overhead myth, preferences for new programs over proven effectiveness, underinvestment in leadership development, failure to admit and embrace failure — these phenomena all contribute to unhealthy ideologies about compensation in the nonprofit sector.”

If you are committed to being a Decent Work-place, ONN’s new Employee Benefits program is well worth investigating – and the enhanced pension benefits recently agreed to between the provinces and the federal government seem tailor made to fill the retirement income gaps in our sector. We should embrace it joyfully (increased employer contribution requirements and all.)

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