About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I recently read the newest study put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Meyer Foundation called Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out. The study is extremely interesting and thought provoking. Many of the issues that the respondests hit on in this study echo some of my own fears about the nonprofit sector. Being a 23 year old just starting out in this sector and coming in with a lot of college debt, I wonder some days how I will ever pay it off with the low pay going to nonprofit employees. I love the sector greatly and the people I’ve met along the way. My intentions are to stick in the sector for the length of my career. I’m just wondering if anyone else has read the study and what their thoughts are.

Dustin B. Heckman


Martin County Historical Society

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16 Responses to Ready to Lead?

  1. I only read the introduction, but I could see that this issue is something we are going to need to take seriously. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am pretty sure I’m not going to live forever. I’ll have to be succeeded by someone, someday.

    I suppose is is about time that we talk about this issue. However, it is made up of a couple of issues.

    First is the unconscionable debt burden that many college students are saddled with when they enter the workforce–not just from undergraduate, but from graduate education as well. There are all sorts of reasons for this, including the high cost of education and the lack of outright grant financial aid at institutions of higher learning (what are they spending their money on, and how come they are not raising more scholarship money?). I cannot imagine graduating from college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over my head, and I know that now, it is quite common.

    Then, there is the issue of nonprofit management. The question has been asked in other forums whether or not there are too many nonprofits out there in the world, all trying to get a bit of the money available for charitable giving. It is a tough, tough world out there for us, and museums are not just competing with other museums, but also with every other kind of arts organization, social service agency, and nature conservancy in the world. I don’t know–do we have too many nonprofits?

    Money is in short supply these days, and discretionary funds even more limited. It is a tough job to manage a nonprofit, and keep it solvent at the same time. And this problem multiplies exponentially for smaller organizations. Graduate school did not teach me anything about fundraising, although I feel fully qualified to be the leader of a museum–at least when it comes to collections and program. As for fundraising, well, I learn as I go along, and am damn lucky to have a couple of mentors. By far, the money thing is the most stressful part of the job.

    The issue of personal time/family life is a valid one as well. As the leader of a nonprofit, the public’s expectation is that you will always be available, whenever they need you. When you are new on the job, you have a desire to always be available. At a certain point, however, something has to give, and you have to allow yourself a day off or a vacation with no guilt. The work will never be fully done (I can’t think of any nonprofits with a limited mission that will someday be accomplished, so that they can close up shop). My attitude is that I could work 24/7 and not come even close to being done. That does make it a little easier to take a day off now and then. But I’m still the first one to be called in the event the building alarm goes off at 3 a.m.

    I just came back from AAM, and helped lead a roundtable discussion about the work of small museum directors. I heard some young people ask just the questions that Dustin is asking, and was raised by the people interviewed in the report. They are the smart ones, thinking hard about what they are getting into before they actually get into it (unlike the rest of us, who just dove in, not fully realizing what the job is).

    Perhaps what we need to do is set up some job shadowing–real job shadowing, where young people interested in management careers sit with us for a day or two as we, say, get ready for and attend a board meeting. (Talk about stress.) Maybe this would help.

    Certainly us old fogies in the profession are partially to blame for not mentoring young people on the specifics of our jobs (I’ve talked to plenty of people about careers in museums in general, but I cannot recall ever speaking to anyone about my job in particular, except at AAM).

    But the sector will certainly face a crisis if people are unwilling to step up into leadership positions in museums. We’ve got to make these jobs more worth taking. Find ways to pay us what we are worth (or, at least, a living wage), support us with the resources to get the work done, and insist on regular vacations and days off (I know this is also an issue in the for-profit sector–what is wrong with us Americans?). The other things we probably need to do is ensure that management training is available at all levels of work in nonprofits–teach young people about raising funds from the time they begin work in a museum (everyone on staff should be working on development anyway). And, we need to offer more nonprofit board training so that the expectations of the work of an executive director are reasonable, articulated, and appraised every year. Clear expectations help all around.

    I’m sorry I’ve been a lousy mentor, and if anyone wants to find out more about what it is like to be a start-up museum director, I’d be happy to share.



  2. Merlin Peterson says:

    I haven’t seen the study, but I can say I have the same concerns as a “mid-career” administrator that Dustin has just starting out. I got a college degree in 1987 that isn’t paid off yet.

    Although this organization is not a start-up like Claudia’s museum, my tenure has brought a shift from volunteer retiree staff to younger professional staff. This has challenged to board to raise salaries above the minimum wage to which they have been accustomed. The compromise in my case has been part-time hours (frequently exceeded) which allow me to take on other work to augment my salary. I also negotiated my museum paycheck to be paid as a salary so my pay check is the same each pay period.
    Job shadowing is an interesting thing at a small non-profit. On Wednesday afternoons you can help us get the garbage out. On Fridays we dust, vacuum and mop. If the toilet needs plunging, guess who does that? I’ve gotten better about calling in contractors for the lawn, building maintenance (including historic buildings.) Then there is the fundraising piece… I’ve learned a lot about grant writing and have some success with that. I insist that the board of directors have a hand in local fundraising. Oh, and inbetween the mundane, there is the weekly news column, daily deposits, the latest artifact donations and preparations for board meetings. The regular duties done, we move on to cataloging the collection and tracking its where-abouts in the facility so that researchers requesting access to a particular item can see it quickly and in good care.

    If there’s still time (which you make if there isn’t) you put together great programs about the collection!

    So one practically takes a vow of poverty to work in this field it seems. Why do I stay?
    I love my job.


  3. Kelly Olson says:

    I did not read the report in its entirety, but can relate to Dustin’s comments and some of the other comments in the parts of the report that I did read. I also struggle with how I will ever pay off my college debt in a reasonable time, much less save for retirement. My short term solution has been to work two jobs. I don’t enjoy this, but it is reality. I would also like to go to graduate school, but I am scared to risk more educational debt for uncertain future benefits.

    There are no easy answers to this issue as there are many factors contributing to the problem: rising cost of education, competitiveness between non-profits for limited funding, lack of training in the areas of governance and fundraising and simply not enough money to go around.

    Like Claudia pointed out, I think scholarships and grants for students pursuing education in fields that are traditionally non-profit would be beneficial. Of course, then we would need a new non-profit organization to oversee the scholarship/grant programs!

    Kelly Olson
    Executive Director
    Mower County Historical Society


  4. Merlin Peterson says:

    Are we trying to save too much? Do we need a museum in every town, or is the Smithsonian enough?


    Mary Warner reply on May 14th, 2008:

    On the surface, Merlin, it would seem that we are trying to save too much, however, history keeps marching on. Which part of it should we leave out in our effort to cut down on what we collect? In citing the Smithsonian, for as much as this organization has, I can guarantee that it doesn’t cover Morrison County history well. Sure, the Smithsonian has Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, but the Lindbergh story is only a small fraction of the history of Morrison County. What about the rest of our history? Does it mean nothing?


  5. Claudia hits on an important theme: college student debt. I count myself as one of the fortunate ones to have had less than $10K when I finished grad school. For what undergrads face, even from state schools, is obscene. One commentator likened it to a modern-day version of indentured servitude.

    When I began here in Cokato at the tender age of 27, I was definitely one of the young ones in the field–almost unusual according to some. Like Kelly, I have two jobs to make ends meet, which sadly is not limited to those in the museum world.

    So much of this discussion makes me not pessimistic, but frustrated. The rewards of this job can be amazing, even if the pay is definitely not. Guess you really want to do it to stick with it.

    Am I rambling a bit, yes. But honestly, I am not sure what the best answer is. When I speak to my former grad school instructors about this issue, they sigh and note that for too many students, the $$ issues are becoming such a burden that going into the museum field is just not an option in the short run.


  6. Mary Warner says:

    I’ve read most of the study and have quite a few thoughts. Part of the problem with low pay in historical organizations is that this has been part of our history. Many of us were founded by volunteers and the public and some of our funders haven’t caught up with the fact that our field has become more professional and requires more in the way of accountability. This image of the unpaid or under-paid historical society staff continues because there are still a lot of historical societies operating under these conditions.

    Our board has been working hard to make sure our hourly wage is decent and is moving toward increasing the benefits we receive. We have health insurance, and the board is currently looking at retirement benefits. Even so, while my husband is in college and we’re living off my income and his student loans, my income for a family of five falls within the range of poverty level.

    Claudia brings up a good point in mentioning the number of nonprofits out there. With 70,000+ new nonprofits being formed in the U.S. each year, there’s a lot of competition for financial resources. There may be too many nonprofits from a standpoint of financial viability, but not necessarily from the amount of work that needs doing. Our collections continue to grow, the public demands more services, technology is every-changing. From what the study suggests about over-worked museum leaders and from personal experience, it’s obvious that the work is unending. How many of us sit idle at our desks?

    The study brought up succession, which has been on my mind since I started at MCHS 12 years ago. I’m of an age where several job changes per life is the rule, not the exception. I’ve also been the staff person in charge of writing our procedures manuals for staff training and as a backup in case someone needs to jump into a position suddenly and take care of business. When a handful of staff is all your organization has for day-to-day operations, each person’s role is critical. If someone goes missing (either from changing jobs, a long-term illness, or even vacation), there has to be a way to compensate for at least some of the knowledge in that person’s head. I have to work my vacation around the days we use to write payroll and bills as I’m the only one who currently knows how to do this. If someone had to step in suddenly, there’d be a painful learning curve, even with written instructions. It’s crucial to the long-term viability of an organization to figure out a succession strategy and our past history proves the point. After both our first and second curators (sole employees) died, our organization went into a slump and had to be revived by MHS.

    As for the practical matter of paying off student loans, our family will be in that position when my husband graduates. He plans to enter the nonprofit sector, so it’s not like he’s going for the big bucks. Hopefully, he’ll be able to find a decent job in our area that will allow him to pay back his loans. (It’s shameful how much debt people have to take on to attend college.) No matter what the situation is, we will figure it out, as we always have. We live frugally, which hasn’t killed us yet and is actually better for the environment than over-consumption. (Think of it as one of the perks of doing without.)

    If you have a large amount of student loans, try not to take on extra debt (credit cards, loans for new cars, etc.). If your job pays well enough, try to pay more than the minimum amount due each month on your loans so you can pay them off faster. If you foresee a problem in making payments, contact your lender immediately. The lender would rather work something out than have you default. There are deferments you can get for particular situations. (I was able to defer during a pregnancy.)

    Thanks for such an interesting question, Dustin. I appreciated everyone’s comments.


  7. Melinda Hutchinson says:

    I’ve read most of the study, and I can relate to a lot of what’s been said here. I started out in the industry as a seasonal interpreter, and worked a lot of different jobs (sometimes concurrently) to gain precious experience. My husband and I debate about careers quite a bit—should we do what we love, or what pays the bills? Our running joke is that when one spouse is working in a low-wage industry, the other needs to have a job that makes the money. He’s in the aviation industry, and believe it or not, many of those jobs pay less than what you’d find in our line of work. (Do I advocate marrying for money? Absolutely not!)

    I graduated from college in 1993 and went straight to grad school, having been told that one needed an advanced degree to get a good museum job. One of the failings of our program was not addressing the realities of the industry—what do you do when the money isn’t there, either for programs or for salaries? That topic should have been addressed, yet few (if any) of the budgets we created for class projects were rooted in reality.

    I just returned to the museum field after eight years in health and dental insurance. I left in part because I needed to make a living wage and have good medical benefits (my husband had just graduated with his lucrative bachelor’s in history and a load of college debt). However, speaking from experience, the business world does not have the greener grass. In many cases, regardless of your college degree, you need to start at the bottom and work your way up, which is increasingly difficult. Also, over the last few years, businesses have been chipping away at employee benefits, including health insurance and retirement accounts.

    Perhaps all of this brings up the issue of whether we, as the saying goes, ‘work to live’ or ‘live to work.’ It’s unfair to be asked either to give up our passion or give up a living wage. How long do we live on the bare minimums, giving up perks that others take for granted? We shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. That blows the whole ‘work/life balance’ completely out of the water.

    Why did I return to museums? I decided that I needed to work with like-minded people, and I needed to do work that is challenging and interesting. I hope I made the right choice.


    James Lundgren reply on May 16th, 2008:

    Hi Melinda,

    Those are tough choices, but for what it is worth, I’m glad you came back to history. I’ve known too many people who left their field of choice and regretted it. Every job and every field has its unique challenges and issues. Doing what you enjoy will go a long way to being able to deal with the negative aspects. Say hey to Matt.


  8. Thanks for all the insight folks! I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking about this. About 2 months ago, my financial advisor told me I should leave the museum and go back to the hog barns to get back on my feet. As much as I loved the pay when I did that during high school and college, I didn’t love the job. There might have been only a handful of occasions where I came home and was happy after work.

    It is also interesting to see the differences in college history departments on this issue. I transfered after my sophomore year of college, and the difference was deafening. My first two years of college, I was pushed to join the public history field. The department chair and her husband were more than willing to find ways to groom me for that profession. When I left there for the college I now call my alma mater, if you even mentioned museum work, you received the deer in the headlight look. Those professors did not see it as a good career choice for whatever reason.

    For me, I enjoy what I do a great deal. As a result, I have become more involved in other community organizations and committees. I believe it is a great way for young people to become involved in their community. The problem is that my generation is money hungry because of our excess college debt. My current debt has discouraged me from seeking my masters degree. Maybe in the next five to ten years, I will finally be able to afford to do so, but right now it just is not an option.


    Leanne Brown reply on May 13th, 2008:

    I recently came across information about the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 which is a new public service loan forgiveness program. The intent of the bill is remove some of the student loan barriers that keep people from working for non-profits–be it the government or a 501(c) (3). It’s definitely intended for those just starting to pay off loans. There’s good info at http://www.finaid.org/loans/publicservice.phtml

    I am one who is currently working for the museum world’s cousin–a library. I loved my time in history museums, and some day I’ll be back, but I couldn’t justify the hours that many have alluded to when I have two small children. There was a time when the museum was my baby, but I couldn’t keep up that level of “care and feeding” once I had actual babies to raise.


  9. In many ways this conversation mirrors the often asked question, “How do we get younger volunteers involved with the museum?” Like volunteers and history itself, making a career in the profession seems to be a process of attrition and survival. I am glad to know so many survivors who retain their passion for the work.


  10. There are additional comments in a report from GuideStar this week. Read more at: http://www.guidestar.org/news/features/leadership_survey.jsp


    Mary Warner reply on June 19th, 2008:

    The study cited in the article you mentioned is a good one, David, well worth the 36-page read. While it concentrates on Gen Xers and Millenials moving into leadership positions vacated by retiring Boomers, I’ve got to wonder whether Boomers are really going to retire en masse as expected or whether, due to the economy, they’re going to remain in their leadership positions beyond the typical retirement age.


    Kelly Olson reply on June 25th, 2008:

    Not only the economy but also improved healthcare and longer life expectancies are keeping people in the workforce longer. I know several people in their 70’s and even 80’s that continue to work because they can. As long as they feel good and can do their jobs they see no reason to retire.


    Claudia Nicholson reply on July 2nd, 2008:

    In an unrelated story yesterday on MPR about the public defender’s office, the man being interviewed cited fewer retirements as one of the reasons that their office is operating at such a deficit. Older employees at the high end of the salary range ordinarily retire to allow younger employees to come in at the beginning of the salary ladder. When that doesn’t happen, payroll costs go up AND younger people have no way to get in. Kelly is right.

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