Q&A

Question: “I’m the founder of a new music performance group and have been learning about how to manage, fund-raise, and produce events for my company pretty much on the job. It’s very exhilarating, but I’m sure I could learn more if I found someone to provide feedback about what I’m doing, and help me figure out what to do next. Any ideas about where I could find this kind of help maybe a personal trainer in nonprofit arts management?”

Answer: What you need is a mentor! A mentor can give you advice, make connections for you, share their experiences, help you set goals, and encourage you to challenge your own thinking. She is the person to turn to when you need another perspective on your work, to help identify flows in your planning, and to engage in creative problem solving. She can offer the wisdom of experience, from her own experience, and save you a ton of time recreating systems and solutions. She is someone you can trust to keep your confidence. What a mentor won’t do is to solve your problems for you.

To get started on finding and recruiting a mentor, you might first spend some time thinking about what skills you want to develop, and setting some preliminary goals you would like to accomplish. Think about how a mentor might help you meet these goals.

Next, make a list of everyone you know who might be able to help both people in the profession in which you want to increase your skills, and everyone who might know someone. Ask friends and colleagues whom they would suggest. Don’t be afraid to work with someone whose style is very different from your own – often those are the very people from whom you can learn the most. Many professional organizations have mentorship programs. Check with these groups, and check out the website for nonprofits.

Then, make some phone calls. Contact the top three people on your list of potential mentors, and ask to meet with each of them – offer to buy them a cup of coffee, or something.

• Explain your purpose – be prepared to share with each person your potential goals, and your expectations for the relationship, how often would you want to meet, for how long?

• What do you hope to get out of the mentoring process?

• What is your time line for selecting a mentor, and for the work you will do together. (Explain that you are talking with a couple of other people, too, in order to be sure you both feel comfortable with the relationship.)

Be sure you have planned enough time into your schedule to make the mentoring process worthwhile. Always follow through on what you say you’ll do – if you run into problems or fall short of time, be sure to call your mentor and let him know what’s happening. You should set an end date for the mentorship, and follow up with a short report outlining what you learned and/or accomplished.

This is definitely a two-way relationship. Mentors often say they have gained as much, if not more, from it than the mentee. First of all, it is gratifying to have someone listen to you with respect! The enthusiasm and energy of someone new in the field is energizing even to old hands, and often stimulates creative thinking in the mentor. Too, both parties can benefit from augmented professional networking.

-written by Joan Wells,Resources and Counseling for the Arts

Question: “I’ve just been hired as executive director for a small arts organization and will be the first paid staff person in its history. I’ll be working approximately half-time (20 hours per week), and have a terrific Board of Directors, many of whom were founders a few years ago, and all of whom have a longer history with the group than I do. Any advice for what problems I might expect and/or advice on how to cope?”

Answer: How wise you are to realize there may be problems. I’m happy to give you a few gleanings from the school of hard knocks. Many have been where you are and didn’t have your foresight!

To begin, you may want to consider what was behind the decision to hire staff, and who has been doing all the work up until now.

The biggest danger is that the Board is exhausted and will immediately turn over all the operations to you and disappear to the beach! The second biggest danger is that one or two Board members will stick around a little too close and want to second guess all your decisions.

Your job will be to assert your leadership while not getting overwhelmed right away yourself. The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is to take some time getting things organized – professionally and personally.

Professionally, identify the power structure of the organization and identify an advocate within the organization. This should be a powerful Board member who strongly favored you as the ED candidate. Meet regularly with her. Also, try to meet individually with each Board member away from the office. Get to know them as people. What drives them? What are their passions, their skills? Why are they on the Board?

Read all Board minutes, fine-tooth-comb the financial situation and review cash-flow projections. (The last might involve spending some money to hire a financial consultant to help, or if the group has had a professional, outside audit, the review may be available pro bono to get you up to speed fast.) Review all income sources – earned and contributed.

Contact major donors, collaborators, and other supporters to introduce yourself. Send a letter to all constituents introducing yourself and telling about your vision and plans.

Identify specific needs for volunteer help, both long and short term, and ask the Board to create a volunteer committee to help you recruit volunteers.

As soon as possible, make a written report to the Board about the condition of the organization. (Don’t make a litany of complaints, but identify any problems and suggest ways to find solutions: for instance, establishing a Finance Committee to help you resolve any financial woes that exist.) But, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you, and you alone, must solve all problems.

If you don’t have a personal support team and a stress reduction program going, get one. Right away. If you do have these, use them. Regular exercise, good nutrition, and a regular meditation practice will be very helpful as you proceed.

And, to your personal support team consider adding a mentor – an experienced ED who can help you evaluate your skills and what you need to develop, will suggest resources, will let you unload problems, and help you problem solve. This should not be anyone directly involved in your new organization, but someone you can trust to be discrete, who will be candid yet supportive.

Finally, relax and enjoy your new job. You’re in this field to make a difference, to realize an artistic dream, or for some other altruistic reason. The Board chose you over other candidates: believe in yourself. Go ahead. Change the World!

– written by Joan Wells, Resources and Counseling for the Arts

Serving Artists and Arts Organizations