Staff: Investment or Cost?

staff with tigers

This weekend Anne and I joined a group of museum friends for dinner. During the meal conversation turned to this blog and to the question of how museums and heritage organizations, especially those strained financially, could and should address the question of equitable wages. It was dinner and not the moment for solving field-wide issues, but it made me think.

I wondered whether part of this problem has to do with understanding and valuing staff. That made me think of the myriad feel-good stories that often end news programs. The ones where an urban school with crumbling plaster, wonky technology and a gym the size of a living room graduates 90-percent of its students many with college scholarships. The answer is always implied, but rarely said: faculty and staff who are passionate about what they do. And do it well. If your eyebrows are in your hairline and you’re wondering what troubled urban schools have to do with financially strapped museums and heritage organizations who pay less than a living wage, perhaps it is the administration or board’s attitude toward staff.

Let me pause here to say that there is NOTHING about this topic that can be solved overnight. But for organizations who really want change, it might be interesting to press the pause button, and gather a group together to examine what change — meaning a new attitude toward staff — might look like. Should you choose to do that, you might want to begin by talking about the purpose and value of staff. It seems obvious, but sometimes, particularly in very small organizations, employing staff means the board is freed from the various tasks of running a museum. Dedicated as they might be, moving from task-oriented volunteer to micro-managing board member is not a healthy transition. So forgive the obvious and spend some time talking about why. Why were the doors opened in the first place? What is the mission? Who do you serve? These are sometimes thorny conversations, but it’s easy to see why organizations fail to move forward when a board’s unspoken mission is to be pleasant to one another rather than serving its community.

The next step might be to make three columns–hopefully on a white board or flip chart where everyone can see them. They are: Staff you have; staff you need; and staff you want. Remember, this is a blue-sky conversation. “We can’t”and “we tried that” are banned from discussion.

People struggle with the difference between needing and wanting. Think of it in comparison to real estate. You need to stop paying rent; owning property is more cost effective; you want a house at the beach. Buy the house now. Save for the vacation house. Once you’ve filled the columns, then ask the group to think about how staff change might happen. Assign a committee member to research the living wage  for your area. If you must offer less than living wage, understand what that means.

This is the moment when prizes should be awarded for the most out-of-the-box ideas. Again, it’s not about ideas you floated out years ago that no one liked; it’s about how to get the best staff you can afford.  Can you partner with a neighboring graduate program in arts administration and develop a fellows program? If the salary you currently offer for a particular position is woeful for someone who’s experienced, but good for a student completing the degree, then could you be transparent and say this is what we have? We’ll take change we control rather than the revolving door and inexperience of folks who invest too little and leave too quickly. Are there positions you can share with other organizations? Business manager? Events? Programming? Is your organization located in a pricey area? Are there ways to solve staff housing and thus add to a less than appetizing salary? Would you be better off hiring consultants for some tasks rather than full or part-time staff? If you did that, could you pay your remaining staff more?

There is no one-size fits all answer here. Every board and its museum is different. But one thing is surely true: Organizations that grow and change are the ones that want to grow and change. People make change, not buildings. Press the pause button and make getting a happy, talented staff a priority.

Let us know your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin

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2 Comments on “Staff: Investment or Cost?”

  1. Joan i love your approach and your ideas and I applaud the way you think. When I started in the museum “business” 35 years ago, staff were hired seasonally or volunteers filled positions. Not many museum programs were turning out professionals. You had people who loved what they were doing, had good common sense and listed to the experts. Some how it worked.

  2. Jessica says:

    Since I joined the field I’ve been amazed at how educated we had to be for such little pay. Most people with master’s degree get paid above the national average. We look at the national average and think that would be nice.


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