On toilet-scrubbing Boomers & succession planning

In last week’s post, I asked whether the nonprofit art sector in the US constitutes ‘good work’ from the perspective of the artists and staffers working therein. The paragraph on ‘scrubbing toilets’ sparked quite a bit of attention and stimulated several comments on succession planning. While succession planning (or the lack of it) in the nonprofit arts sector was not the solution (problem) I was aiming at in my first post, it’s a compelling topic, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

In 2005, Jerry Yoshitomi and I co-moderated a panel session at a Grantmakers in the Arts conference called Bye Bye Boomer (Hello Retirement); or Is It Time to ‘Retire Retirement’? In advance of the session we created a little survey and polled our friends and contacts. It was informal and non-scientific. We just wanted to use the responses to help stimulate a conversation at the session. We had an equal number of Boomers and those younger than Boomers take the survey. Here’s my recollection of the gist of the more memorable (read: hostile, moving, or passionate) responses from our convenience survey:

Boomers reflected that they had worked hard to achieve their positions (and decent salaries, finally!) and resented feeling compelled to move along just because others coming up were eager to take over and they were nearing official ‘retirement age’. Additionally, almost none of them could afford to retire (having no pensions or savings from years of low- or no-paying nonprofit work). Many were put off by unwilling-to-pay-their-dues young upstarts expecting decent salaries and top posts straight out of college and to work bankers’ hours.

Younger respondents resented that they were stuck with useless degrees and loans to pay off and that they had few options, none of them appealing: (1) start your own small (and unlikely to become large) company that pays nothing (hard to do when you have $60,000 in student loans to pay off); (2) work day and night for low wages in an established institution and hang out for a couple decades in the hope that you will eventually be promoted; or (3) take over an organization that’s been driven into the ground and spend years trying to ‘fix’ the institution without ‘changing it’ and thereby offending the board, funders, donors, and current patrons.

I’ve since seen such sentiments reflected time and again. But these arguments are beside the point (and perhaps growing a bit tired). Whether or not Boomers should stay in their nonprofit posts for 20 more years or begin to turn the reins over to a next generation (or at least promote them to positions with meaningful authority) is not a decision that should be based on ‘what’s owed’ to Boomers (for their years of no-wage toilet scrubbing) or to those (overeducated grads saddled with debt) who are eager to grab their jobs.

What about what’s best for the mission? What’s best for the arts and culture sector?

Plenty of my friends are Boomers and many of them are incredibly effective in their leadership positions and have deep knowledge of and ties to their communities (relationships which translate into resources for the institution); it’s hard for me to imagine that their individual institutions or the sector as a whole would be better off if they all suddenly began jumping ship. Having said this, I think the arts and culture sector will be stagnant 20 years from now if it doesn’t start trusting (and investing in) 18-35 year olds and heeding their ideas on how to produce, curate, finance, ‘market’ (will we even use this term in 15 years?), and distribute both mediated content and ‘live arts’ events.

Four Eyed Monsters is a 2005 film by Susan Buice and Arin Crumley. While it is a very low budget digital video production, the young filmmakers gained significant attention for their use of various web-related strategies for distributing and building an audience for their film. As I understand it, Buice and Crumley were wooed by several companies (with no toilet scrubbing required as part of the deal) when their methods for creating, marketing, and distributing their film came to light.***

What was considered to be incredibly innovative by the arts and entertainment industry establishment appeared to be completely intuitive for Buice and Crumley. We talk about the need to ‘find new models’ … ‘re-think the nature of liveness’ … ‘change the relationship between artist/audience’ … ‘get rid of artificial divides (disciplinary, nonprofit/commercial, business/art)’. I don’t think smoke starts pouring out of the ears of the Millenials when they try to think about these things. The new paradigms just make more sense to them than the old ones.

My intuition would never have led me to the marketing and distribution tactics created by Buice and Crumley. I was incredibly enthused when I heard about Four Eyed Monsters. I was also envious as I realized that I probably couldn’t trust my instincts for how to market anymore. I’ve joked with friends that perhaps we need reverse professional development programs in the nonprofit arts sector: Boomers and GenX leaders taking courses taught by those in GenerationY. I’d sign up.

A few years back a national service organization contacted me as they were designing a new comprehensive professional development program aimed at ‘young/future/emerging leaders’. They solicited my thoughts on what such leaders want and need to learn. I said (essentially): “I think many of them are, for the most part, overdeveloped from the standpoint of workshops, seminars, and webinars. What they need and want is the chance to put into action what they have learned. Make some decisions, exercise some judgments. Act. Fail. Reflect. Learn. Act. Succeed. Reflect. Learn. Can you give them that?”

Do young people make mistakes? Sure. Did I when I ran my first organization at the age of 30? Or my second at age 34? Uh huh. And last I checked people don’t stop making mistakes when they turn 40 or 50 or 60. There is greater risk in keeping the next generation tethered (and bored and frustrated) than in unleashing their power and perhaps having them make some mistakes.

There were some terrific comments on last week’s Jumper post–notably a particularly thoughtful one from David Dower about his experiences both scrubbing toilets in exchange for the opportunity to learn/participate early in his career, and (later and currently) mentoring the next generation. David is a great leader who is striving to provide a platform for his staff to exercise their ideas. And there are many more like David (in small and large institutions across the US).  I certainly hope they do not leave the sector anytime soon. I also hope that when their young staffers are ready to run institutions that they will have the opportunity to do so.

As to those leaders who need to move on for the good of their institutions but who are reluctant to do so (perhaps because they are not psychologically or financially prepared to let go) … well, how and when to deal with them, and whether or not to require them to come up with succession plans and perhaps give them emeritus positions and salaries for a period of time (just a thought),  is in the hands of governing boards across the US. Let’s hope they are paying attention.

*** Thanks to friend and (20 Under 40 author) Brian Newman for first turning me on to Buice and Crumley and countless other great new ideas, companies, & perspectives these past five years.

Toilet brush and gloves image by Kiselev Andrey Valerevich licensed by Shutterstock.com.

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  1. Joe says

    I’m of the younger-than-boomer demo– I’m 22 and just starting as an ‘arts administration professional.’ My experience has been that when my young, talented peers (and I) make art on our own time, there’s no end to our commitment of time and resources; you might describe our behaviors as the opposite of entitled. All of by best toilet scrubbing has been done when no one gets paid except Samuel French. When, however, an organization has a $10.5 million operating budget and spends more on janitors than I make in a year, I am hesitant to spend my whole self and work till the wee hours, and demanding that I do seems (to my youthful, ignorant eyes) entitled in its own right.
    You’re right- the solution lies in trust and investment; if you want the dividends that comes from hiring energetic young people with their fresh, expensive education, you have to give us something- be it a livable wage or challenging, exciting work, or excellent mentorship. If we feel ownership of the work, we’ll stop at nothing to make it happen.

  2. says

    Great post, offering a thoughtful perspective on familiar complaints. It seems to me that in this ongoing debate, there’s one group that’s consistently left out – the mid-career professional. We’re no longer under 40, and are therefore less likely to be tagged as an “Emerging Leader” and courted with workshops, mentorships, and the like. When we were coming up in the business, there were no such support programs, and collegiate studies in arts administration barely existed. We’re no longer at a point in our lives when we’re willing (or able) to work countless hours for a salary that’s barely above minimum wage, and find ourselves confronted with a serious dearth of opportunities for career advancement. And we’re not anywhere near retirement age, although the need to plan for it is very much upon us. Do you have any thoughts on how this group of arts administrators figures into the picture?

  3. Anastasia P says

    One of the impacts I’ve seen here in Cleveland, Ohio from shrinking revenue is the elimination of the sorts of jobs where young people can break in and learn, as arts organizations tighten their belts. It seems like you have the top couple of dogs, perhaps taking on more of the lower-level functions, and then maybe some part-time or freelance people. But the jobs that get axed tend to be those where younger people can get a toehold in an organization or in the arts community itself.

  4. Sasha H says

    I’ve worked for NPOs (mostly, I’ve also been a line cook and a book “clerk”) since graduating 6 years ago. I’ve always earned a living wage from my NPO jobs. My advice: Don’t be a sucker. Ask for a livable wage when you’re hired (they say 25K, you say 30K and see where you wind up). Ask for frequent reviews. Ask if there are chances for raises and promotions based on performance (not just cost of living increases). Ask if there are opportunities for mentorship (if that’s what you’re looking for) or continuing education. And make sure the company can deliver, ask about the financial stability of the organization. Lastly, don’t be afraid to turn down a job that seems to have exploitative work environment. There are other jobs out there (including ones that will want younger employees to express themselves and have input in the company… and not just when the conversation rolls around to Facebook and Twitter).

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