Are We Developing Our Staff to Build Their Capacity and our Organizations'?

members of ACSO attend performance at Hollywood Bowl

Guest post by Mitch Menchaca, Executive Director, Association of California Symphony Orchestras


I started my career twenty years ago when the nonprofit arts sector was just beginning to receive professional academic training beyond conferences. Select graduate colleges were starting to offer arts administration programs, and there was a move toward academic professionalization of the field. I remember thinking that maybe I needed to obtain a master’s degree in arts management to grow my career, as my only professional education at the time was on-the-job training. However, what kept me from pursuing higher education was the cost of graduate school versus future potential increase in salary, as well as what my organization could invest into my future in the long run to help me avoid further college debt. Fortunately, I had a supportive executive director who would ensure professional development funds were in place to send staff to conferences, classes, and workshops. It was a benefit to help retain a talented workforce when salary increases were not options. I learned that I had a special supervisor, as colleagues from other arts nonprofits were not given the same learning opportunities, and it made them want to jump ship to find jobs in or out of the sector that would contribute to their professional growth.


The fact that in the arts, 3,547 people attend for each full-time employee is incredible, as is the relationship between an overall average of 38,741 attendees and 11 full-time staff members annually. My organization is the professional association for symphony orchestras in California, which make up two out of five of the geographical samples of this report. We serve the gamut of orchestras, from large professional orchestras like LA Phil, to small community orchestras with budgets under $100,000. According to the Staffing Report, symphony orchestras are right on the average, which seems fantastic in comparison to other arts disciplines; however, I know staff capacity, no matter the budget size, is an issue to most of our members. Capacity is also a question I ask myself and of my board when we discuss expanding our programs and services. How can we continue to do more with less?


The report shows that organizational capacity expanded “slightly faster” than growth in the number of people served. This may mean an organization realized it had maxed out its current staff’s capacity to provide high-quality offerings and services, and the ability to attract more future audience members depends on making initial investments in people.


Many arts organizations, especially symphony orchestras, are not creating tangible products. They are creating experiences. To create and provide those experiences, people are the most valuable resources to an organization. However, people become one of the first line items to be cut during tough times, whether it be layoffs, salary reductions, or cuts in professional development. Even when times are good, arts organizations often try to find the most talented staff for the lowest price tag.


The report states, “Organizations need to balance the desire to serve more people with an adequate level of staff capacity to do so well and avoid employee burn-out.” What’s not highlighted in the Staffing Report that we need to ask ourselves, is how we as a sector can retain and grow our staffing without investing in professional education and offering competitive wages to the people who are creating experiences that serve current and future audiences?


Photo: ACSO 2017 Annual Conference participants attend the July 20, 2017 LA Phil/LA Master Chorale Wagner concert at the Hollywood Bowl