Monday, November 30, 2009

Putting the Profit in Nonprofit

As we've said before, one of the huge issues with museums being able to pay their staff is that there just isn't enough money to go around. "But museums are NONPROFITS," you say. "They aren't supposed to make a profit, right?"


This misconception is at the heart of the problem, in my opinion. A nonprofit is not a business that doesn't make a profit. Instead, a nonprofit is a business that is unable to distribute profits to owners or shareholders. It has to reinvest its profits back into furthering its mission. There is no legal limit on how much money a nonprofit (in our case, a museum) can make.

So museums need to start thinking more like for-profit businesses, right? I had a conversation last night with a friend who remarked that the consumer-driven model can't work for museums. If it's all about making money, why don't museums just join with movie theaters and offer blockbuster hits inside (some museums do this with their IMAX screens, in fact)? Wouldn't that get people in the doors?

Sure it would, but then are people actually learning anything? Is the museum furthering its mission? Not really.

The important thing to know about nonprofits is they have a dual bottom-line:

1 – make money

2 – further the stated mission


Yes, museums must learn to do both, not one or the other.

Here's the challenge: how can museums (and museos) make money enough to pay salaries while furthering their mission? "If you build it, they will come" is not working. We need to do more. Any ideas on how we can put the profit back in nonprofit?

Food for Thought: Emergency Jobs Programs

It's almost impossible to talk about the museum employment situation without talking about the general employment situation. "Times are tough everywhere." While it is discouraging to hear this platitude as an excuse for inaction, platitudes are platitudes for a reason. The job market really is awful right now. Here's an excerpt from a New York Times op-ed you really ought to read:
"If you’re looking for a job right now, your prospects are terrible. There are six times as many Americans seeking work as there are job openings, and the average duration of unemployment — the time the average job-seeker has spent looking for work — is more than six months, the highest level since the 1930s.

You might think, then, that doing something about the employment situation would be a top policy priority. But now that total financial collapse has been averted, all the urgency seems to have vanished from policy discussion, replaced by a strange passivity. There’s a pervasive sense in Washington that nothing more can or should be done, that we should just wait for the economic recovery to trickle down to workers.

This is wrong and unacceptable."

- "The Jobs Imperative" - Paul Krugman

What Krugman proposes is a job creation program similar to the Works Progress Administration: salaried public service jobs, incentives for employers to hire instead of fire, etc. Kat and I have been rooting for a new W.P.A. for over a year now so naturally I think this is a great idea. The negative effects of unemployment don't disappear when you find a job. We need to be tackling long-term solutions.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Actively Organizing: A Lesson From Canada

Picketers from around the world in front of the Museum of Civilization and War. [via]

Museos all know the pitfalls of passive collecting: while you may end up with some great stuff, your collections will be uneven and incomplete. You might end up with all of one thing and none of another. If you are not continuously searching out the objects which will best further your museum's mission, you might fall into a collecting rut.

It seems that this blog has fallen into that rut. If I had been actively seeking news related to museum workers, wages, unions, and the employment situation, I might have been able to bring this story to your attention much sooner. Instead, I've been passively collecting and sharing links that I've stumbled upon. I've brought you a lot of one thing (links related to the general employment situation for young workers in nonprofits, for example) and none of another (stories about actual museos uniting).

In short, I'm feeling duly chastened. This is a huge story.

Workers at the Museum of Civilization and War in Ottawa Canada have been on strike for just over two months. You can follow news about the strike either on their union website (the museum is a national one, so workers can join the public servants' union) or on their Twitter, @MuseumWorkers. Despite their status as public servants, these workers have no job security, temporary contracts, and severely limited opportunities for advancement. They make significantly less than museum workers at other institutions, and have no protections against their jobs being contracted out. More specifics can be found here.

I don't know much about how these things work in Canada, but currently in the U.S. museos with union protection are either public servants or they work for an institution that has organized under the banner of a large labor union. Museum Educators at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum are trying to unionize under UAW Local 2110, a branch of the United Auto Workers. Museos at the New York Historical Society, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the MoMA can also join this union. I don't want to dilute this entry with an additional topic, but you might notice that even if you can join a union (which most museos cannot, since we are not all public servants or the part of a large and unified workforce at a prominent institution), you are still liable to run up against unfair employment practices: you might still get unfair wages, you might still be denied benefits or job security. Unionization is not a cure-all, but it helps. We actually hear about injustices at these museums because there is a union to publicize them. Unions do not only provide the right to bargain, but they also provide a voice outside of the institution. Other museos do not have that voice.

And what a voice it is. The strike at the Museum of Civilization and War shows us a wonderful example of what collective action in a museum should look like. There is an incredible amount of solidarity on the picket lines, with workers from other museums, other industries, and other countries showing up to express support. Museum programming has continued, with the striking workers arranging an outdoor childrens' museum and a Halloween fair. They have chosen to demonstrate what a valuable service they provide not by denying the public that service, but by continuing to provide it.

So what can you do to help aid the cause of workplace fairness in museums?
  • For starters, tell a friend. (Thank you Dan Cull, for blogging about this.)
  • If you really want to go all out you can head to Canada and join the picket line like the admirable men and women from Pittsburgh and Germany who are pictured above.
  • If you, like me, find yourself with less money and flex time than that, you can send an email to museum CEO Victor Rabinovitch. Let him know that you believe in equality of opportunity, fair salaries, and a healthy measure of employment protection.
  • Perhaps most importantly, you can let the workers at the Museum of Civilization and War know that you stand with them. I for one think that they provide an excellent example of how to organize with grace and class, and I hope their demands are met in full.
I'll be following this story closely from now on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Forgotten Link

I just stumbled on this link now, so unfortunately it didn't make the roundup. It's the evocatively titled Stressful Jobs That Pay Badly from Curator clocks in at number 12, with a median salary of $46,500 and 89% of curators saying they're stressed.

Clearly curators make more money than museos in other parts of the field (certainly more than educators!), but then I would also surmise that they're more likely to have several post-graduate degrees. While $46K still a low salary for someone with several MAs or a PhD, it's definitely a living wage.

Note to self: get out of education and into curatorial work as soon as possible.

Link Roundup

It is I, your delinquent web mistress. Well, one of them. School tours at my museum began last month plus we've seen a big influx of donations (objects, not money), so I've been pretty busy. I do have a Google Doc filled with half-written entries, but in the interim here are some links that might be of interest.

At No Time In Post-World War II America Has It Been More Difficult To Find A Job - via the New York Times

Americans, Their Smiley-Faced Facade, and Reality - You might have realized that this isn't a blog with a smiley-faced facade. I don't believe it achieves anything to pretend everything is hunky dory in the Museum of Denmark when a lot of things are rotten. This is a tremendous read, talking about how toxic it is to smile and wait for things to change (while denying they need to) rather than being an advocate. An excerpt:
On the surface, prosperity gospels and positive-thinking companies appear harmless with their treacly "Successories products" of posters and coffee mugs, but they have subversively helped make each of us an island. They have convinced Americans that each individual has control and power over the conditions of their life, when that is largely not the case. Access to decent health care at a reasonable price is not a matter of individual effort. Neither is securing decent wages, pensions, safe working conditions or job security. Workers demanded those rights through collective action in the 20th century, and we are losing them now by taking an "every man for himself" approach to work.
Here is the New York Times book review of the same book that sparked this article: Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The Most Hilarious Job Advert Ever - The Williamsburg Art & Historical Center is seeking a Director. For free. Maybe if you do a good job they'll pay you in two years! Wonder if they've had any takers?