Don’t Use Your Museum’s Nonprofit Status to Mask Real Workplace Threats

crossed fingers

This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.

Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:

Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.

Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.

We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.

As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:

  1. The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
  2. Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
  3. Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
  4. Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.

If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.

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We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!

Joan Baldwin

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