Issue 282: Maintaining Momentum

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Being Small is No Problem At All… Or Is it?

By Tammy Bradford, Manager of Creston Museum

We talk a lot about maintaining momentum as we grapple with the recent sweeping changes to our sector and society. We’re working hard to do better when it comes to reconciliation and inclusion, finding new ways to connect with audiences, and, in some cases, coping with the disastrous impacts of climate change. And that’s on top of all the things we’ve always done — like maintaining facilities and managing collections.

It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges to maintaining momentum revolves around people — and this is one of those areas where, I’m forced to admit, being small may be a problem after all. How many of us have seen our volunteer numbers decimated because our volunteers are among the most vulnerable demographics? Or staff members laid off because of pandemic-induced revenue losses? Who’s feeling stretched to breaking as more and more things get added to our to-do lists? Or like our work is not valued as it should be?

My apologies, that’s sounding bitter and resentful, and I really don’t mean it to be. The fact remains, however, that the museum sector is notorious for overworked and underpaid staff.

Although we were lucky enough at the Creston Museum to avoid layoffs, we have had some staff changes (my own contract came up for renewal), and our ever fluid job descriptions have been unusually turmoiled as we’ve responded to all these upheavals! So, my board of directors and I have had an interminable — and, frankly, demoralizing — round of discussions lately about what I do, what my co-worker and summer staff do, what value we bring to the organization, and what a fair salary might be.

And through it all, I’ve come to the conclusion that board members — sincere and well intentioned though they may be — don’t always understand the sheer scope of our responsibilities and capabilities, and so they aren’t always able to relate our value to a realistic salary.

To be fair, this is an enormously complex issue. Board members with careers in other fields might genuinely not know exactly what a museum role entails. If they’re retired, they may not be aware of the significant upward pressure on salaries. And boards are under incredible constraints to work within minuscule budgets and justify the expenditure of public funds. But, too often, instead of tackling those issues, the boards buy into a litany of poor excuses: Non-profits just pay less. The cost of living is lower here, so salaries are lower. Minimum wage is so high, we don’t have to pay more, etc…

At the risk of feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to suggest this trend is worst in small museums run by non-profits, where these attitudes show up alarmingly often.

Addressing this challenge falls to both board and staff members.

First, some suggestions for board members: Stop saying things like “We’re hiring someone to do the grunt work,” or “We don’t pay executive-level salaries because we don’t have executive-level staff.” Such nonsense just devalues your staff. Believe me, if you have one or two people running an entire museum, there is nothing menial or merely clerical about their roles. They are doing all the strategic, highly specialized tasks that larger museums have five or fifteen or even fifty people doing. Base your salaries on that — not on the fact that they also clean the washrooms. Reject the excuses to pay less, and instead find ways to pay as well as you can. Always make sure that staff know that you know they are worth more.

Boost your benefits and perks too. I realize this has budget implications, but get creative. Allocate time and money for professional development to equip your staff to deal with new expectations. See if you can afford extended health premiums. Pay for employee parking downtown. Let your staff collect points at local stores. Pass on the gift baskets, coupons, or complimentary tickets you get from local businesses. Even an ice-cream party at the end of an intense day can help.

My advice for employees: let’s get off the express train to burnout. Let’s stop diluting our own salaries with enforced volunteerism. Say no to projects that require working extra hours, and if they are unavoidable, get serious about time off in lieu. Take your holidays. Block out the time months in advance. Protect your non-work time. If you’re not at work, don’t work! Don’t accept work-related phone calls, don’t finish that report, don’t reply to the “urgent” late-night email from a board member (Oh, and board members, stop sending late-night emails!).

“I’m my own worst enemy in that regard: I schedule programs and grant deadlines and all sorts of things with joyful abandon, until I can’t find even three days in a row for holidays. Seriously, don’t do that.”

Also, look for things you can do independently of board and budget. For example, adopt a policy of flexible statutory holidays, where each employee chooses ten days, scattered throughout the year, that they will observe as their stats. This is especially awesome if you have staff who don’t celebrate Christian holidays, or whose partners work traditional stats.

Support your staff families. Let family members register for programs for free. Maybe your new-mom co-worker can work from home twice a week to save on childcare costs. Make sure the gift certificate you give her is enough for the whole family. Be generous with paid sick or personal days, and empathize when she arrives late because little Johnny couldn’t find his favourite socks.

Admittedly, none of this fully compensates for low salaries. But highly valuing and treating our people well does go a long way in addressing task saturation and improving work-life balance.

I’d love to hear your strategies for defining and implementing decent working conditions in your own museums!

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