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July 19, 2010

The perils of using volunteers for vital arts business tasks

When it comes to picking the people who are going to run your audience development initiatives (be it the producer of the show, the person writing your email newsletters, or the person sending out your press releases, etc.) organizations generally have two choices: barter for cheap or free using an existing relationship with a volunteer who knows how to do the stuff, or hire someone to do the work (either staff or freelancer). Many organizations go for the former, thinking that a volunteer or “social relationship” is excited and capable to do the job, maybe even at no cost. And many an organization suffers a lack of fuel in their engines because of that choice.

The free arts website scenario

It’s attractive, I totally agree to that. Let’s say you’re the artistic director at a small theatre company, and you need a new website. You lament about this with your theatre friends (as you should, because it’s fun) and one of them says “Oh, I set up websites, I’d be happy to knock something out for you, free of charge.” And you think to yourself “Yes! New website for no money!” And indeed, a few weeks or months later (probably longer that you had hoped) he/she launches a pretty good looking site for you. You’re thrilled to announce it. People tell you it looks great. And for awhile, everything goes smashingly, until one day you send an email to your friend, asking he/she to update a section of the site for you, and you don’t get a response. A few days go by. You need to get this updated. You call, and finally get them and they say they have “just being swamped.” But they do the update for you, and things are good again… for a little while. Then the cycle repeats. He/she is your friend, so you don’t have the heart to tell them to shape it up (and you don’t really have a right to anyway, since you’re getting the service for free). Your relationship starts to go South due to the tension, and he/she wants out of doing the updates. And more mayhem occurs. And what’s really happening is your image is suffering — people can’t get the information they need when they need it. Press people can’t get the photos they need. People can’t see how to purchase tickets. Etc. Sound familiar? This is a very common occurrence in the nonprofit world. Organizations have chosen low-cost or free as the most important factor, and for that, they’ve given up reliability, the ability to enforce requests, and ultimately a friendship. And they’ve wasted all of that energy hounding somebody to do work that could have been spent following up on some other marketing idea. The upside just simply doesn’t outweigh the downside.

Volunteers: use them for non-essential tasks

Nobody meant to hurt anybody’s feeling here. It all started with good intentions. But since there was nothing but favors involved, there was no way to enforce people becoming flakes for whatever reason. One of your goals as the manager of an arts organization is to create a business model that doesn’t allow for flakiness. How do you do that? Pay people who are doing the vital tasks. You can do this by using volunteers only for non-essential tasks, so if they flake, you’re not hurt. Examples of non-essential tasks are redundancy in house management (have two volunteers, if one doesn’t show, you’re still ok), set painters, dressers, etc.  “Assistants” to everybody where appropriate, so that the main person can have an easier time, but if the volunteer doesn’t show, the main person who is getting paid can still get it done. The main check is to ask yourself “if this person doesn’t show up for some reason, would I be dead in the water?” If the answer is yes, pay them. By keeping your vital tasks assigned to people who have a financial interest (however small or large) you gain the ability to keep running your organization like a business, which is how it should be. If someone is not performing the things they are assigned to do, you have the power to let them go and to find someone to replace them, and the people being paid know that, and function with that in mind. This is a powerful control that shouldn’t give up in the name of low budget. Marketing and audience development is not something you want to have being done some of the time. There needs to be a system you’ve put in place that guarantees that it is running at least at a minimal level, all the time. And paid staff or freelance help can be set up to do that for you, and will do it, because they want to keep their job or your good business respectively. Volunteers, as much as they want to help, are not good to count on for reliability (and as I say that, I know that you may have a volunteer that is as reliable as the sun rising — but from my experience that is an exception to the rule.)

But what if we can’t afford to pay people to do those tasks?

If you’re ok with non-reliable performance from your vital people, you can skip paying them. And some people are ok with that level of performance at their arts organization, and I’m not saying that’s not ok, for them. But if you’re struggling with the scenarios I’ve described above, just realize what the cause is, and find a way to fix it. Maybe that means you do a less-expensive show this season, so that you can pay less in royalties, and use the saved money to hire someone to rely upon to run a marketing campaign for you. Or that you increase your ticket price a couple of dollars so you can pay a small staff. You’re worth it, and they are too. What you get is marketing that works. Outreach that works. Websites that you can update on your own or know will get updated by your paid help whenever you need it. Lighting designers who want to do this for their art, and still be able to eat. Actors who get paid at least something for their craft. Yes, it costs more in the short term, but the reliability is there for the long term, which leaves you with the peace of mind that it’s getting done, and that you have options if there’s a problem. It’s a nice, relaxing place to be. Like this post? Please share it with others who you think might benefit from it, via the links below, and subscribe via email or RSS to receive future updates. Ron Evans is an arts marketing and technology consultant with in Sunnyvale, CA. Have an opinion about the content of this post? Start or join the conversation on our Facebook page.