The dark side of nonprofit-land


This is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent spate of lockouts, strikes and general discord at US orchestras. The underbelly of orchestras that has been shown in too many of these cases completely undermines my belief that nonprofit organizations are filled with good people trying to do the right thing. Moreover, I worry that the public airing of these disputes has left the American public with the inaccurate impression that all orchestras are filled with greedy bastards both on stage and in the offices. I don’t know when it happened but it feels to me like we’re not in nonprofit-land anymore. Or we’ve gone to the dark side of nonprofit-land. Either way, it’s bad news. We’ve ended up somewhere that feels cold and soul-less.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to even reconcile the need for and validity of unions and hardball negotiations with a nonprofit ethic. I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that (1) if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money; and (2) if you go work for a nonprofit that the nonprofit leaders are also not doing it for the money; and (3) that nonprofit leaders are going to do the best they can to fairly and equitably compensate everyone involved in the nonprofit and; (4) those same leaders are going to expend resources in line with the values of the institution (e.g., art, artists, community, education).

Clearly this is easier said than done.

These protracted negotiations and strikes always seem to raise the question, “What’s the value of the orchestra?” But one might just as easily ask, “What’s the value of the administration?” Perhaps if the administrators walked out the door and left the musicians to figure out how to raise money and market performances and keep the lights on we could better understand how much of the current administrative heft is still needed to keep the public, the money, and the electricity pouring into the joint.

Maybe it does take a village of administrators to run an orchestra in 2012. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it takes seven really entrepreneurial producers, a more engaged band of musicians, a slew of volunteers, and some really smart public/private partnerships?

(It’s an idea.)

Likewise, we might ask, “What’s the value of the orchestra hall?” “What’s the value of a year-round concert series?” “What’s the value of liveness?” What’s the value of musicians who only play music?” “What’s the value of a professional orchestra compared to a community orchestra?”

I could list 100 other questions aimed at questioning all of the “taken-for-granteds” in orchestras—all the means that we have come to treat as ends, many of which contribute to the economic difficulties facing orchestras.

I’d feel better if orchestras that have clawed their way back to the beach after drowning in deficits and being caught in the riptide of contract negotiations and strikes were sitting together on the sand, facing the setting sun, wrestling with all of these questions, and trying to find new means to the common end of serving society through the arts. But can people who treat each other with such contempt ever hope to sit together and solve problems?

How did we end up on the dark side of nonprofit-land? And how do we get out of this dehumanized place?

ADDITION: For those who have not been tracking recent articles on orchestra crises in the US, here are few links:

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minneapolis Orchestra, and a good roundup on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, Slipped Disc.

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  1. says

    Where to begin…

    First of all, to say these disputes and conflicts are unseemly is problematic, right off the bat. To avoid any “unseemly” conflict is to give more weight to the status quo and those with more power in a relationship. And sometimes orchestras have more power, and sometimes administrations have more power. I’m not making a blanket statement regarding who benefits from the status quo, as it varies from place to place.

    More importantly, I take issue with some of your assumptions. To say we’re not in it for the money is generally true, if you mean we’re not in it to get very wealthy. But even though we’re not trying to get rich, we all want to have a nice place to live and we all want to put our kids through college. I’m an administrator (not in the upper ranks), but this is true for everybody, onstage, backstage, in the office, wherever.

    And, we all want these orchestras to be as great as possible, and we all want them to be sustainable. And sometimes those two priorities are in conflict, for example when costs rise faster than ticket prices can possibly rise. And honest people can have honest, difficult, and yes, “unseemly” conflict about which of those priorities are more urgent at a given time.

    But I really do agree with your “What’s the value…?” questions. It’s not true that everybody, everywhere is taking the answers for granted, but I agree they all ought to be explored more.

  2. Erik J. says

    We really, really need to abolish this notion of “not being in it (the nonprofit sector) for the money”. Because we use that notion as an excuse to keep paying people wages that are embarassingly low for the full-time work that we do.

    This is Problem #1 in nonprofit management. Organizations assume that people “aren’t in it for the money”‘, so they don’t devote enough budget to salaries. They hire people who are willing to work for those low salaries, and those people generally don’t know what they’re doing (the people that DO know what they’re doing also tend to know what their value is in the job marketplace and go elsewhere). So you have organizations staffed with underperforming workers, which translates to less than impressive operating results. Which leads to a continued low level of budget available for salaries. It’s a vicious circle. The cheapest labor is rarely the best.

    • says

      Those of us who left private industry to work in nonprofits get tarred with the same brush, unfortunately. So we spend more time than should be necessary convincing Board members coming from private industry that we know what we’re talking about. Very inefficient.

    • Jere says

      To piggyback on what Eric said, when you pay management professionals (whether you’re speaking about actual management or receptionists and assistants) extremely low salaries, you’ll get young inexperienced people who are doing it as much for the love of the art or the institution as the money. And you’ll keep them for a couple of years. And then they will burn out and take whatever experience they’ve gained elsewhere to earn a livable salary and the arts organization is stuck starting over again. My experience In New York was taking a great internship right out of school where I was making $100/week. In New York. But it was an internship and I made sacrifices for that year to get the experience. Then I took a job. For less than $21K per year. In New York. I couldn’t make that work long term, but I loved working in the arts, so I tried to take a second job at night after doing 40 hours a week at my regular job. That wasn’t sustainable and I ended up leaving both jobs and working as an office temp in other industries. As a temp, I made twice what I was earning in the arts with the bonus of a lot less stress and a lot less sturm und drang. I would LOVE to go back to working in a theatre office, because I kind of hate working in pharmaceuticals, but who can afford it.

  3. says

    Below are some examples of high salaries for arts exectuives in 2009, as reported in the New York Times. See:

    * Peter Gelb at the Met makes 1.3 million.
    * Reynold Levy’s annual compensation to run Lincoln Center tops $1 million.
    * Carnegie Hall pays Clive Gillinson more than $800,000.
    * Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, earned $2.7 million in the year that ended in June 2008, including several one-time bonuses and the cost of his apartment in the tower beside the museum.
    * Occasionally institutions will also pay bonuses tied to performance or longevity, like the $3.25 million given in 2006 to Philippe de Montebello to recognize his 30-year service to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    * On top of his $940,000 salary, Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center earned a $150,000 bonus, as well as other benefits, for 2009.
    * Zarin Mehta’s most recent compensation, for fiscal year 2010, is $807,500. In the fiscal year ending in August 2008 he earned 2.67 million. This reflected his salary in addition to eight years of accumulated deferred compensation.
    * Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art earns $450,00.
    * George Steel, the general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera receives $360,000 – and from an opera house that just shut down its next season due to a lack of funds.
    *Deborah Borda, Executive Director of the LA Phil makes $799,970 per year plus bonuses that raise her income to well over a million dollars.

    These high salaries are endemic to America’s unique and isolated system of funding the arts through donations from the wealthy. A form of cultural plutocracy evolves.

    • says

      ONE executive at each of those organizations makes a salary like that. The only other people that get paid that much are top-tier artists. The vast majority of administrators are not making large salaries, and have little prospects of making such large salaries. We’re just middle class, if we’ve been in it for a while and work at pretty big organizations. Or we’re young and often not making enough money to pay student loans and rent, like Jere’s comment indicates.

      And no, I don’t get upset that I’m not making a chief executive’s salary. I don’t have that person’s headaches and hassles. I’m not on-call 24 hours a day, accountable to a dozen or more people who each think they are the center of the universe. I only get upset when people conflate executive salary with administrative salaries.

      • says

        Yes, maybe it’s only one per organziation and only in some organizations, but the point is that no administrator in the non-profits should be making such ridiculously large salaries — which are becoming more common. It sets the wrong example for the whole institution. And this goes over to orchestra members too. The first trumpet in Philly makes almost 300k per year while regional orchestras pay their musicians a pittance. These trends need to be stopped. Decent livings, yes. Exhorbitant salaries, no.

  4. Henry Peyrebrune says

    Hi Diane,

    I wonder if you’re not confusing a moral status with a tax status in your view of non-profits. From my point of view, non-profit status exists to encourage the support of organizations that the market won’t support in order to do those things that worthy of doing in themselves, i.e., not for a utilitarian end. Among and within the individuals working for non-profits, you’ll find a commitment to art,education or religion/service (beauty, truth, goodness?) AND the full range of human goodness and venality.

    We measure results of non-profits – financial, breadth of service, number/characteristics of people reached, etc. – in order to compare organizations and make intelligent decisions about funding, but it is crucial that we not mistake those measurements for the purpose of the organization.

    Orchestral musicians spend their lives striving to play every last musical detail perfectly unified with those around them, and a little bet better than their colleagues, other orchestras, and their last performance. This effort for unity, attention to detail and comparison are in our blood – it’s also a perfect recipe for unionism. If there were no unions, orchestral musicians would invent them.

    That being said, what drives unionized orchestral musicians is our desire to have a sustainable career making music. It’s unusual for musicians to change jobs after age 35 or so. By that point, we’ve decided that our current position is stable enough and satisfying enough that we’ll make what is essentially a lifetime commitment to making music in that community. We measure (see above) the community’s commitment to their orchestra by the financial resources they are willing to provide to the orchestra.

    We question whether a community is living up to what we perceive as its end of the commitment when it allows things to deteriorate to the point that there is no cash, the board no longer trusts the management and measures success (see above again) only by the standards of for-profit business.

    There are many external reasons for orchestras’ financial challenges, as well as internal reasons that have kept some of us from dealing with them. Nevertheless, the demands for reductions that challenge our identity as members of a respected orchestra and threaten our homes and our children’s futures, cause a sense of shock and betrayal that lead to anger and intemperate reactions.

    Not to poor cold water on your newly-wed bliss, but money is one of the top sources of conflict within marriage. Would we judge the value of marriage by our worst fight over family expenses? Well then, let’s keep in mind that non-profits, like marriages, are made up of humans with good intentions and fallible judgment.

    • says

      Like most artists, many musicians have individualistic artistic aspirations that are sacrificed when playing in an orchestra. This is especially true for the tutti strings, but it applies to the winds as well. By playing in an orchestra, those aspirations are dampened. They must play in unison with many others, often with people they don’t particularly like, and are under the control of an absolute authority figure.

      This helps us understand why a survey by the Symphony Orchestra Project under the direction of Richard Hackman at Harvard found very low job satisfaction levels among orchestra musicians compared to other professions. It is surprising how often one even confronts bitterness. Orchestra musicians like the status and pay of playing in a top orchestra and feel lucky to have their position, but they often still don’t really like the actual work their job entails. This leaves many orchestra musicians dissatisfied, and their pay becomes a compensation. I think consciously or unconsciously this attitude of sacraficing their artisitic autonomy has in some cases led to excesses in the pay demanded.

      • Henry Peyrebrune says

        I have been skeptical about the Hackman study that characterizes orchestral musicians as unhappy and dissatisfied. In order to rebut Mr. Osborne, I went back and read the Harmony article in which Paul Judy interviewed Dr. Hackman. It can be found here:

        and, it turns out that it is absolutely apropos to the current “crisis.”

        According to Hackman, orchestral musicians are very highly self-motivated, but registered general dissatisfaction with their jobs. In my 30+ years in professional orchestras, I’ve always seen that dissatisfaction as a facet of striving to reach a higher standard, rather than general discontent. I can’t imagine that it is the same lack of satisfaction that beer delivery men experience.

        Even more to the point is Hackman’s discussion of responsibility and leadership roles as it relates to orchestra quality and musician satisfaction. It’s dead on in its diagnosis of the troubles we’re seeing nearly 20 years later. Well worth re-reading.

        • says

          Here is one of Hackman’s most important findings and one that you folks should carefully note:

          “It is true that the most powerful influence on orchestra players’ professional satisfaction is the
          degree to which their organizations provide them opportunities for meaningful involvement in orchestral affairs. (We also found that professional dissatisfaction was highest in orchestras where the board of directors dominated the decisionmaking process, the other side of the same coin.)

          “Artistic advisory committees are a case in point. Many orchestras have them, but few orchestras take them seriously. Musicians on the advisory committee may (or may not) meet regularly, but rarely do their views
          count in developing the artistic direction of the orchestra, in choosing guest conductors or soloists for future
          seasons, or in deciding about tours or repertoire. […] Players are professional musicians who have
          much more to give to their orchestras than usually is sought from them—and involvement about artistic matters is one arena in which those potential contributions can be harvested. But it has to be real involvement. Pseudo-participation usually is worse than no participation at all.”

          We see this in practice. The Detroit Symphony’s management made a lot of major decisions about the orchestra’s future without consulting the musicians and the results were catastrophic. On the other hand, the administrations in Memphis and Denver worked closely with the musicians in creating resturcturing plans and the results have been very good. Respect the musicians’ intelligence, knowledge, and dignity. Let them meaningfully contribute to the decision-making process and you will have a harmonius, well-run orchestra. This probably applies to a wide range of arts organizations.

  5. says

    “Not in it for the money” seems to be the push-button phrase here! While I too bemoan the kinds of conflicts that cast a bad light on cultural institutions (and reify stereotypes some already have about the field,) I think musicians, like actors, teachers and coalminers, have a breaking point. The breaking point is clearly exacerbated by the fact that the administrators (who often make far more than the musicians) are in charge of the budget process AND it’s then worsened when intractable union “professionals” take over the negotiations. It is a painful, difficult but often necessary dance whose choreography was notated in stone years ago.

    What I DON’T see, often enough, is the willingness for pain to shared among EVERYONE that works for the organization in a proportional way. (e.g. EVERYONE takes two weeks unpaid leave which equates to a one-time savings of 4%). Depending on the job and the responsibilities, the time can be taken throughout a year or all at once. And that should be coupled with EVERYONE having a role to play in fund development. There must be some models that are collaborative, that are working, to ease this discord. I’m a little naive, too, about this Diane but I also agree with Henry. I believe, for the most part, people are doing the best they can. But people in corners don’t negotiate well.

    I also believe, as a field, we need to be more comfortable with failure. That may sound harsh but in the business world it’s not unusual for businesses to go under, be reorganized, be reborn again and again Our field is unable to withstand cycles because most non-profits are undercapitalized and have no cushion to weather those kinds of reorganizations in response to changing circumstances.

  6. says

    I had also noted Polly Carl’s blog and it is clear that in these difficult economic times all aspects of the work of non-profits (of any kind) are under the microscope. Overall, that’s probably a good thing, but it is pretty painful when one set of established structures and values are challenged and overturned. There will be financial winners and losers and some long-held ideological positions will be shaken. There is nothing special about non-profits in this – commercial concerns and (especially!) governmental institutions are also being shaken up – and employment disputes are just one manifestation. The big difference with non-profits is that they are somehow supposed to be more ethical organisations run by ‘better’ people than the money-grubbers elsewhere. In my experience this is often true! But employees in non-profits are as entitled as anyone else to the protection of trade unions and to challenge management. Perhaps it is the conservative, closed, hierarchical structures of most of our non-profits which needs to change.

  7. Andy Buelow says

    “We measure the community’s commitment to their orchestra by the financial resources they are willing to provide to the orchestra. We question whether a community is living up to what we perceive as its end of the commitment when it allows things to deteriorate to the point that there is no cash,” etc.

    I am now going to say some things that may be very difficult for some people to hear, and I hope it is taken in the context of the deep liking, affection and respect I have for nearly all orchestral musicians I know. (Disclosure: I am an orchestra “CEO” — but at a small, part-time, per-service orchestra — and I don’t make a six figure salary!)

    One of the issues that has led to this “unseemly” contention within the orchestra industry is the sense that some orchestra musicians have that the world somehow owes them a good living — an attitude conveyed by the above quote. This reminds me of something a musician once said in a contentious meeting between board members and orchestra members during a challenging period of collective bargaining: “it’s our job to play the music; it’s the board’s job to raise the money.” Or again, in a recent article about the Minnesota Orchestra: “we’ve become world class, and now we feel like we’re being penalized for it.” (paraphrased)

    What troubles me about all these statements is the pervasive sense of entitlement they reveal. Do musicians really think that community leaders at any time made an eternal compact with the orchestra, in effect, “just keep playing really well and we promise we’ll fund you in perpetuity.” And that chiding the community for “not living up to its part of the bargain” is going to shame community leaders into suddenly coughing up large sums of dough?

    I agree that some CEOs are overpaid. I agree that many hardworking management level staffers are grossly underpaid. The other issue I think needs to be brought out on the table is the bubble that many professional orchestral musicians seem to be living in.

    Musicians work very hard, spend their lifetimes immersed in developing their musical skill, and so I understand that they are surrounded almost constantly by people who, like them, care deeply about the art form. It is therefore difficult for them to comprehend the utter indifference by which it is held by 98% of the rest of the world. Hence the bubble.

    Board leaders and orchestra CEOs deal with this reality every day, and many of us — myself included — have devoted our careers to trying to change it. Musicians need to understand what we are up against, and that there are NEVER, at any time, ANY guarantees of continued success and security.

    The world does NOT owe any of us a living.


  1. […] In the recent economic climate, there has been a flight to safety in so many areas of society, making it harder for organizations to be progressive in their work. Some have been unable to negotiate the enormously difficult economic waters, and we daily read of the fallout, be it the diminution of New York’s City Opera, the suspension of production by Minneapolis’ Penumbra Theatre, or the labor struggles in orchestras just chronicled by Diane Ragsdale. […]

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