Sunday, February 28, 2010


Hello everybody.

“And the beat goes on................”


In the last two blogs I have recounted some of the complaints about the interpersonal relationships in the workplace in the nonprofit arts – which is, I think, emblematic of the far more serious and profound lack of professional development that we provide to all of our people. I have had several comments and emails echoing my lament that we spend precious little time or effort in training ourselves as managers in how to effectively deal with the personal relationships in the workplace and the consequent damage that does to the harmonious balance of generations working side by side and ultimately to our productivity, and our ability to attract, recruit and retain talent. And that reality is, in turn, symptomatic of the dearth of our efforts at Professional Development as a whole.

As I see it there are five fundamental problems with our attempts to provide real professional development business training:

We need more training in more areas; training that is deeper and broader and richer in content. Too few of us are getting the basic and advanced training that would help us to be better administrators and managers. We erroneously assume that in certain areas all we need is common sense and that training isn’t really necessary. It’s as though, as several people have told me: ‘We pretend that these skill sets come naturally to everyone.’ They don’t. The private sector understands that, and the necessity of on-going training to do one’s job better. Moreover, we lack any comprehensive offering of training opportunities. What we do offer is essentially confined to two or three areas – marketing, fundraising, and board development. Scores of areas are ignored entirely – from the aforesaid generational and interpersonal relationship management in the workplace to such specific tutorials as budget planning, report and memo drafting all the way to more technological training, time management and strategic planning. Even in the areas we do offer limited training, most of the offerings are only surface training with very little depth to any given subject. Often times they are but rehashing of old ideas with new, pretty sounding course titles – designed to get us to sign up, but end up unsatisfying. There are some basic courses that should always be available as fundamentals, but too many of our training workshops seem tired and old to me.

We need to offer a full range of management training across a wide variety of subjects, and we need to offer this kind of training at different levels. New hires need a whole different range of available learning modules than do seasoned veterans. We too often expect younger employees to somehow just intuitively know what it took us years to learn. We long ago adopted a one size fits all approach that really makes no sense to our needs. Long term leaders need much more technological training than the average Millennial generation member.

And while many trainings will work across a broad spectrum of end users (whether in the nonprofit or private sectors), arts administration is (as we really well know) a specialty. Our sector isn’t a carbon copy of every other sector, and we need to tailor and customize our training to our specific needs – across areas of responsibility and expertise, and across experiential and generational lines.

Those in major cities have far more available to them than do those in the suburbs or rural areas. But even in the metropolitan areas, what is offered is rarely accessible when the end user needs it – but rather on some schedule (and at locations) that is convenient to those offering the training. We need to figure out some sort of professional development plan that allows the end user access to the training s/he needs WHEN they need it – in ways (and places) convenient and workable for them. Talking head seminars and ill-prepared panels simply may not be the most effective way to teach. We need alternatives. That means a wholesale change in the way we offer training – from the occasional course offered by a management center or individual consultant (dependent on a minimum X number of attendees to justify the cost) to offerings virtually on-demand. Very likely the only way to do that is via some web online offering system – at least as one component in an overall approach. We’ve made some progress in this area of late, with webinars et. al. that remain available on-demand, but we are still barely scratching the surface. Meaningful training needs to be available to anyone, whenever they want it – as far as that is practically possible.

Along the same lines, that which we do offer is widely scattered about, and the end user is often faced with the daunting (and time consuming) task of tracking down what might be available, when, where and then making some “in the dark” determination whether or not what is offered is likely to meet their demands. We need to aggregate what we offer in centralized places and we need a way to offer reliably excellent training. We need some standards and benchmarks for trainers and their offerings.

Unfortunately, few of our organizations budget a line item to training. Too often expenditures in this area are regarded as a luxury and an afterthought. We don’t think we can afford to train ourselves on a continuing basis. We think it is something to budget for only in very good times. This is the opposite of what the private sector believes. It is also shortsighted, because: (i) It isn’t true. The success of our missions is dependent on our abilities as administrators and that is dependent on our level of skills; and (ii) It works as a disincentive to younger people looking for a career from entering our field. If we are to become better, and more competitive, as business people, we need to accept the reality that training is a life-long learning process. And not just for a few of us, but for all of us – from the Executive Director and Board member to the intern. Too often senior leadership doesn’t think it needs more training. What a ridiculous self-defeating notion. You may never forget how to ride a bike, but business management is very different in 2010 than it was in 1995 or 1980. On the other hand, we also suffer from the internalized belief that we can only afford training for the senior or middle management – not those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy. Another ridiculous self-defeating limitation. New people need training and mentoring to grow into being effective leaders. Empowering the younger generations to speak to, and for, themselves is laudable, but we are derelict if we don’t provide them with training and guidance. We have to change the culture of our business philosophy to recognize that arts administration is a profession, and treat it accordingly by embracing learning to improve ourselves as professionals at all stages of our careers.

In the long run, we need to embrace professional development so that it can make financial sense. Training must be affordable (see # 5 below), but it must be used by sufficient numbers of people so that the income it generates is enough to make any such sector wide effort self-sustaining. Organizations should budget for it, but any such line item cannot be excessive. Creating systemic, sector wide provision of professional development will likely require funder support in the early days of a new model. But no model that depends on some kind of outside subsidy for its existence is likely workable long term. Whatever means we devise to provide professional development opportunities, after not too long, that system will have to be self-supportive to be viable. Economics of scale must be applicable in terms of both supply and demand.

Finally, because we allocate virtually no money to training as professionals, and because we are in a severe economic climate, most of what is offered is too expensive. Degree in Arts Administration programs have much to offer, but are relatively expensive - as is all higher learning today. Isolated, individual course offerings can likewise be prohibitively expensive for both the cash starved organization simply trying to stay afloat, as well as for individual managers who would like to improve their skills levels but have limited budgets. We need a system that has some economy of scale so as to provide substantive, high level training to everyone as and when they need it throughout their careers. Funding that provides trainers to individual organizations isn’t working, because too few people are served; it is not an effective use of limited funds. We need to figure out how to make widespread availability of first class training financially feasible for everyone. It is bad for the profession and the whole sector if only some organizations can afford training; if only some organizations and / or individuals are subsidized. We have to figure out a way for subsidies and support to enable a delivery system for professional development that makes economic sense for the providers and the users.

I know that others share my concern with the sad state of our professional development programs. We really need a unified effort by our funders, municipal and national agencies and all the employees of all our organizations to recognize that this is a fundamental, and very profound, need for our sector and begin to take a longer term, strategic and comprehensive approach to make training:

• a high priority embraced by all segments of our sector, and all levels of our organizations
• comprehensive and tailored to our specific needs as a field
• aggregated in a one-stop centralized manner
• widely available and accessible on-demand
• offered to everyone in our work force
• at affordable costs for everyone
• and self-sustaining in the long term

If we don’t do that, we will continue to marginalize our preparedness as capable business leaders and remain at a distinct disadvantage to others in the nonprofit world and the private sector, and there will be identifiable, and costly, consequences to our failure to act. I know one thing for sure – there is a thirst and desire and need out there for more training opportunities.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit