by Jini Stolk

I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “audiences.” No. I actually want to talk about how we relate to our most important resources: the people who work in arts organizations, producing, promoting and generally supporting the art in an astonishing variety of ways.

When I meet with people eager to find work in our field I can’t help but be enthusiastic about the satisfactions of my own career. But I often wonder what we’re offering young people at the beginning of their arts careers.

I think we can all agree it’s not high salaries or stable employment with good benefits.

The Nonprofit Quarterly, as it so often does, provided useful insights in a piece about recruiting and retaining excellent staff given our inability to “compete” in traditional ways. Recent research in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, it seems, concludes that today’s workers value the same things Studs Terkel wrote about in his groundbreaking book Working.  I remember the rush of validation in reading that most people “search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

These are things we definitely can offer, if we’re smart and purposeful about it, to the 174,000 (and growing) Torontonians who work in the arts because they want their work to have meaning.

Recent studies also say that people want a say, influence, participation, and voice at their workplace.

They find work meaningful when they’re involved in an organization with a larger purpose, where their work makes a positive difference to society; where they feel a sense of ownership and involvement in how the work is done; where they see and understand how their work fits into the larger mission of the organization; where there is a collective sense that everyone’s working together towards a goal; and where healthy and happy relationships are fostered and maintained.

Workplaces that engage workers’ spirit and intellect are more productive and produce greater customer satisfaction by means of the high quality, responsive service and communications that people certainly expect from arts and other social benefit organizations.

We should be workplaces of choice. We have mission and purpose at our core; we highly value the participation and engagement of staff and constituents; we believe in respect and equity and in each person having her own voice; we want to encourage fairness and collaboration…I sincerely hope.

These things may not always come easily – human relations are tricky; our best laid plans go often awry – but they are what set us apart, and what we can offer employees to keep them engaged and committed even when we don’t have any extra room in our budgets.

There is a particularly jarring disconnect when an organization devoted to creativity, collaboration, caring and equity turns out to have different standards when relating to their own staff. If the word gets out, organizations can lose an enormous amount of trust and good will which may be difficult to regain.


Helpful and interesting things to read on this topic:
Turkel, Studs. 1974. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Tom Terez, 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media, 2000.

Management be Nimble by Adam Bryant, The New York Times

Learning is the work week by Harold Jarche


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