Yesterday’s Interview

I had two interviews this week, and three last week. I am going to lose my voice with all this polite chatting, and I am having trouble keeping my story straight about my career aspirations (to be involved in the grant-making process as a program officer, to run a theater company, to have my own space, to grow as a nonprofit leader…ugh, who can keep all these fake dreams straight?! Kidding!). But really, I am just trying so hard to keep my cool, to retain some amount of perspective, and to remember that I have value as a worker, despite not being employed.

So, my meetings this week were both a little tough, for different reasons. But I will talk here about my interview yesterday, because it was essentially emblematic of all the experiences that led me to start writing this blog.

I applied for this job, which I saw posted on Idealist on Wednesday around 12pm, by 2pm the Executive Director had called me to set up  a meeting for two days later (yesterday). Wow! So fast! They must be really excited about my candidacy. That’s nice. (A few weeks ago, I interviewed with an organization that told me I was one of five in-person interviews for a job that got over 500 applications. These numbers are staggering. But being chosen is always flattering.)

I left my temp job on Friday at 12:30, giving up two hours of paid work in order to interview with this small arts education non-profit with offices in Chelsea. The woman who interviewed me, the Executive Director, was warm, friendly, engaged and very straight-forward. All good signs. We had a great talk. The job might be a little below my level, it included marketing and development work, but no financial management, which I really enjoy. But it seemed like a nice organization with a fun mission.

Then she let me know that she had recently lost two staff people…out of three. She needed someone who could start right away and pick up the reins really quickly. Turnover often affects non-profits very intensely, because small staffs are already over-extended, and a normal two week notice can seem like (or actually be) a serious crisis. Brutal. But luckily I can start right away. She also mentioned that the position had been part-time but they needed a full-time employee to really devote themselves to the position.

Then we discussed some of the strengths and needs of the organizations–they seemed to have a lot of good systems in place, but just needed to maximize them. It’s always so funny to hear people complain about the donor database that they have but don’t update because it’s so old and confusing–just use Excel! Honestly, I know why these small non-profits use out of the box databases, but it really kills me. Thankfully, it sounded like most of the stuff that was happening was positive, or at least a good start. They use social media and have a blog, and want to find new ways to engage with a variety of audiences.

All in all, not the scariest interview I have had. The organization seemed to be in relatively good shape, given the difficulty of fundraising for arts education and bringing in money during the recession.

So then I asked my questions. It’s a good sign that I even felt comfortable asking these: 1) How do you handle conflict?; 2) What is your communication style? and 3) Ho would you describe yourself as a manager?

These questions are crucial to understanding how a boss will operate in a very small office, and I have found that many people don’t have ready answers for these questions. Sometimes you can glean some interesting information, or dig up an old issue. I had someone once tell me about a long-held grievance against a former co-worker who hadn’t worked at the organization for over 4 years. This ED gave lots of great answers, and aside from insisting that “the new person” (she started just saying “you” at a certain point, which is always interesting) copy her on every email they send and allow her to edit every piece of writing for the institutional voice, it all seemed pretty normal. She even said “I don’t believe in pitting people against each other to get them to work harder–I don’t think that works.” It was all good stuff.

Even though it was a much smaller organization than I really want to be in (I think 30-40 employees would be ideal for me), it could really work. Do some fun arts education stuff, get my mojo back, get some good grants under my belt, this could really work.

And then she looked at me and said…”we have to talk about the salary. Are you going to need health insurance?”

I knew then that all this good chatting was for naught. It was also weird because it felt like she was offering me the job, and I knew I would have to say no.

Yes, I am going to need health insurance. I am not married. I am not in a union. I wouldn’t be able to get another job with benefits to supplement this job.

“Yes, I need health insurance.”

“Well, in that case, I think the best we can do, and this is having already spoken to my Board…the best we can do is probably $30,000.” (Now, in another city, this would be a reasonable amount of money, and it is certainly in keeping with the organization’s budget size. But I can’t live on that much money in New York. I have loans. That is not workable for me.)

So I told her that it just wasn’t possible. She said that if I didn’t need health insurance, she could take that number up (aahhhhh! somebody has to pay for the health insurance!). I told her I was really sad, because it seemed like a great fit, but it just wasn’t realistic for me.

And then she told me that if I wanted to get paid more, I should really look at working at a larger organization. We shook hands and she told me to be sure to stay in touch.

There are two things about this that really destroy me:

1) She insisted that they needed a full-time employee, and yet was offering to pay me less than 60% of my previous salary. I bet I could certainly do the job in three days a week, but they want someone full-time. They need someone who can “really commit.” She, and many other people have said that part-time employees don’t work out. If you need someone to commit to you, you have to give them a reason to do so. You have to pay them enough so that they don’t have to get a second job. You have to offer benefits. You have to try to make the job attractive as a job, and not just because of the mission.

2) This circular reasoning about why salaries are so low (we are a small organization, but we need a full-time person so we can grow, we can’t afford a full-time person because we are so small, but we’ll find some magical person who likes to work for $14/hour, but we need to grow so let’s increase hours without paying more?) is laughable. But similarly frustrating is that this ED knew how low the salary was and made the offer anyway.

We as arts managers, leaders and Board members are setting these salaries. As a field, we are driving away qualified applicants with these absurdly low salaries. I know big organizations that do it, and small ones. Also, when we don’t offer health benefits (including dental), retirement plans and paid time off, we are weakening the field as a whole. To me, it speaks to a real lack of vision to keep salaries and benefits so depressed. Boards and EDs need to be leaders and insist that they pay their staff well. I know how hard it is to raise this money. I know that salaries are not attractive funding opportunities for individual or institutional donors. But guess what? Without people, none of the work happens. Besides, this is how you engender fierce loyalty and retain the best possible staff. Pay them and treat them with respect. It’s not that hard.

So, I went back to my temp job, where I would get paid more by the hour than this job was offering me, and I ate a burrito. I considered getting really upset. And the sweet ladies I work with asked me about my interview (they are so nice!). I told them what happened, and this one girl looked at me and said “You can’t take a pay cut like that, and you shouldn’t have to!”

I agree. I hope she is right.

I know that I am in a place where my previous title and pay were a reach at first, but I did  a great job for 2.5 years, and took a similar title and a significant pay increase at my new job (the one I quit). I know people want me to have more experience, or to need less money. I wish I had another job under my belt too. I wish New York wasn’t a horrible money hole. Yesterday was very much the prototypical interview I have had over and over these past 6 months.

I just want to work at one job, and get paid enough to live on. But in this industry, and with the recession to use as cover, I’m not sure if it is possible.


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