How Do We Pay People More? Walk Away from the Kitchen Sink

How Do We Pay People More? Walk Away from the Kitchen Sink

Hypocrites executive director and PerformInk contributor Kelli Strickland’s musings on performing arts management. 

In her plenary address at the TCG conference last month, Anna Deveare Smith talked about the ways in which theaters can walk the walk in their anti-discriminatory initiatives. Among the many ways she cited, she encouraged theaters to “no longer assume that people are willing to starve to work in the theater,” noting that we are losing the best and the brightest to other areas of the entertainment industry that do not operate with the pressures of the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle under which we function.

I referenced why this talent drain is an overarching problem for our companies in my first blog post on the shifting storefront landscape. We burn people out – we lose their expertise and experience to better compensating fields. And Nicholas Ward offered a succinct description of why barely minimum wage compensation packages are impacting our ability to open up our theaters to workers beyond those who have been afforded greater privilege in their lives in his HowlRound essay Dear (My Fellow) White (Chicago {Or Anywhere} Theatre) People.

In our company we have three organizational priorities: Artist Investment (increasing compensation for artists), Anti-racism and Organizational Capacity. In one way or another, all of those priorities require more money to pay people. And if you read my post on capacity building you know that I worry about attaching all of our capacity building initiatives to revenue increases. I worry that we set overly aggressive goals for the increases in our revenue growth and we become discouraged, abandon our strategies and revert to working reactively, rather than proactively. My worries are not to be confused with the basic truth for all of us. We need to raise more money. My concerns are more tied to our expectations of how that is going to happen and the ways in which we keep ourselves motivated to do it.

Our earned revenue has limitations on it. We are limited by the number of performances that we can produce, the number of seats that we have to sell, the limitations of the market demand on our ticket prices. That being said, most of us are not spending enough on our marketing—time or money. And strong marketing has to precede the revenue stream that is not limited—fundraising. I divulged in that same blog post referenced above that I am a product of the Devos Institute of Arts Management when it was still at the Kennedy Center. So for those of you who are counting, this is my first reference to THE CYCLE by Michael Kaiser with Brett Egan.

If you are newer to the field, I think THE CYCLE is a great resource. It is an easy read and can be a simple mantra to keep you focused. There is nothing magical about the cycle. You just have to keep doing it. But for those of us working in storefront – it is the FOCUS that can be hardest thing to maintain.

I spent 30 minutes last week trying to figure out why strange insects were coming up from our kitchen sink drain and another 20 minutes trying to figure out if we were damaging our PVC pipes with the method that we were using to try and keep the unidentified flying insects out of said pipes. I followed that up with 20 minutes communicating with the landlord about whether or not they could help us with the removal of our new officemates. I lost focus. I could provide ten more examples of things to which I tended that did not move us forward in meeting our three organizational priorities. Not all of them were as ridiculous as ‘The Case of the Kitchen Sink Conundrum,’ but a few others were close. And if I added them all up they probably comprised 12 hours of my work week.

Storefront companies that have a full-time dedicated development staff person are rare. Because strong marketing needs to come before strong fundraising, staff expansion in a growing company often means that a dedicated marketing position is put in place first. It was at our company. That means that I can’t be pulled off course when it comes to fundraising. Development is the easiest can to kick down the road. Other than grant deadlines, an annual appeal, and scheduled fundraising events, there are few hard and fast deadlines to meet. It is an ongoing process. It is relationship building, talking to people outside of your company – telling your story to anyone and everyone who might be in a position to help you. It is spending quiet time identifying those who care the most about the work that you do and in what ways they can best assist you to meet your organizational priorities. It is communicating gratitude and appreciation to those who are currently supporting your work. It is introducing your company to people who have never heard of you.

We all get pulled off task at times. The trick is to gently and consistently bring ourselves back to it. To re-energize and refocus ourselves on fundraising is not about the fundraising per se. It is about meeting the call to action for all of us to do better by our people. In our field, a big part of doing better by our people means affording them better wages.

About author

Kelli Strickland

Kelli Strickland is the Executive Director of The Hypocrites. She completed the Devos Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 2013 and returned to Raven Theatre as Executive Director where she had previously served as Director of Education. Kelli has twenty years experience as an arts educator and consultant in program development, program evaluation, and arts learning assessment. Kelli is an instructor at Loyola University in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.