This article is meant as a kind of a collective self-portrait because, as you will see, many of our readers have helped us to shape it. It is a representation of ourselves as nonprofit workers: rural and urban and suburban, older and younger, across the country, and in many different fields of endeavor. The people and places are different, but their experiences are knit together by the common theme of ardor for their work and their communities.

Generally, we have noted that the mainstream media characterizes the nonprofit workforce in two ways; (1) through exposés of exorbitant salaries and bad behavior on the part of a minority of nonprofit leaders and (2) through a kind of “What a saint” lifestyle-page profile. Since most of us are neither saints nor mercenaries, that leaves a lot of us wishing that the cartoonlike caricatures would stop and give way to a more accurate and nuanced view of our hardworking, skilled, and committed workforce.

So here is our effort to bring you “Working: Nonprofit-Style.” What follows is a series of interviews not aimed at making any particular point, but rather designed to provide a view of how we develop ourselves and our communities in the context of our jobs. The interviewees here tend to work in smaller or midsize organizations (we hope future coverage can reflect a broader sample of organizational size). Interspersed in this article is sometimes surprising information drawn from research about our national nonprofit workforce, its diversity, and its compensation.

People working in nonprofits—even in jobs that require specific skill sets—often end up in positions they did not plan to occupy. Below, two artists discuss the journeys they took to their administrative positions.

Christa Stiner: Rising to the Position—and the Challenges. “I started out in a pit orchestra playing bassoon,” says Christa Stiner, “and then I worked in a box office, and then I became the orchestra manager for a musical theater company, and then I became the business manager for the musical theater company, did a little work in public relations and marketing for a small dance company, and then I became the general manager for the musical theater company. Then I jumped to being an administrative assistant for a much, much larger ballet company and worked my way up through the ballet company, from production assistant to accounting assistant to production manager to finance director.”

Stiner, who makes $80,000 as the director of finance for the 28-year-old San Jose Repertory Theatre, operating with a $6 million annual budget, readily admits to lacking a degree in accounting. But she clearly has a grip on the complexities of the number-cruncher role in this organization, which has 200 employees. She talks knowledgeably about the challenges of public accountability, internal transparency, and engagement in budget processes as well as how she approaches managing the mix of earned and contributed revenue familiar to many arts organizations. How did she acquire her skills? “I’ve been working in nonprofit finance for about 15 years. I’ve learned virtually all my nonprofit accounting on the job, mentored by other finance directors. Anybody who has a love of numbers and an eye for detail and appreciates the structure of justifying one’s tax-exempt status can do this job.” But she notes that the job requires skills in critical thinking as well, “You have to be able to do a certain amount of analysis and ask good questions and be aware of what’s going on around you,” she says.

This unconventional training for high-skill jobs is not uncommon in nonprofits, which are often resource-stretched environments. Good managers are often on the lookout for workers whose talent and aptitude might be developed to cover more than one role, and this search sometimes leads to employees finding joy in unexpected roles.

Stiner says that the most fulfilling aspect of her job is “being right in my projections. Doing the modeling and being successful in being able to forecast accurately.” This would be music to the ears of most executive directors.

Habib Loriot-Bettaieb: Artist at Work. When asked about his workplace at TITAS, Habib Loriot-Bettaieb is quick to describe the brilliant, multicultural performing-arts tapestry that is the essence of his Dallas-based nonprofit organization’s mission. His list of past and forthcoming artists tumbles out enthusiastically: American Ballet Theatre! Steve Reich! Twyla Tharp! Kodo drummers of Japan! China’s Shaolin Warriors! Benin’s superstar and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Angélique Kidjo! MOMIX! Portugal’s fado chanteuse Mariza! Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal! The Afro-Cuban All Stars! Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet! He extols the virtues of each and says, “What we do appeals to all sorts of folks; we have people of all ethnicities, of all ages, and of all economic and educational backgrounds. TITAS audiences provide a pretty good representation of what America is really all about.”

Loriot-Bettaieb started as an artist, studying music composition in college. “It’s something that remains at the core of who I am,” he says. “However, talent alone has never assured anyone a career in a specific field—royal courts are no longer around to support composers, commissioning them to write music, so instead I became a program officer at the Missouri Arts Council, a state arts agency, where I oversaw the music and dance grant programs. Then, I hopped on the other side of the fence, joining my first nonprofit organization as general manager of the St. Louis Ballet, and after that I joined Metro Theater Company, considered by our peers as one of the leading five theater companies in North America that produce original theater pieces for young people and families.”

Perhaps because of the realization that good art always needs sponsors—even if they are not royalty—Loriot-Bettaieb ultimately went back to school to hone his fundraising skills and knowledge, attending the Fundraising School at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. And with his broad experience and added education under his belt, he joined the ranks of TITAS as its director of development with a modest salary (in big city terms) of $50,000.
Unfortunately, over his very rich and productive career, Loriot-Bettaieb has not been blessed with much in the way of employer contributions to his retirement. “It’s the Bank of Habib financing Habib’s retirement!” he says. “None of us go into this field to retire a millionaire. We just do it for the love of it and the joy and hope it brings our fellow man.”

Summer Shimabukuro: The Richness of Organic Diversity. Summer Shimabukuro, a member of the local Shimabukuro-Dodge family known for its activism, works for MA‘O Organic Farms (a project of Wai’anae Community Re-Development Corporation) in Wai’anae, Hawaii. The endeavor, which engages young people in organic agribusiness, is one of several networked economic development efforts around the Hawaiian Islands. Many of these projects have been established explicitly to help youth learn and develop from a cultural base that is uniquely Hawaiian.

Shimabukuro is 28 years old and makes a bit less than $40,000 a year as the farm’s director of education, although she is paid through a local community college. Above a lot of background noise caused by youth in the program getting settled in for the day, Shimabukuro described her job for us.

“I do everything from the front line all the way up to upper administration, so I get a taste of everything,” she says. “A typical day would start in the morning at 7:00. I check in with the youth, we usually do a chant. We have about 30 college interns that co-manage the farm and whom we support in college. I help with morning announcements and take the time to check in with as many as I can. I like to see how they’re doing, how school is going, and hear about their home lives. I see it as day-to-day counseling and case management, which is great to be able to do, because I get to work on the ground with our interns, hear their concerns, see if there are any changes the program needs to make in order to better empower them, and really get to watch them grow.

“I usually have a few meetings during the day. We do a lot of networking where we work with other organizations and our partner schools on various projects for our education program. So I’ll usually have one or two meetings to discuss collaborations, I check in daily with our executive director and also help oversee our education team, which consists of two education resource specialists and myself. One specialist focuses on our college programs, and the other focuses on our high-school and intermediate programs. I check on how things are going with their current activities and how I can best support them in what they’re doing. That’s pretty much in a day. I do a lot of program designing and evaluation of our programs. A lot of that is just concept stuff on the computer and constant dialogue with MA‘O education and farm staff. I also help with special events like fundraisers and am just learning how to write grants.”

For Shimabukuro, the diversity of tasks isn’t onerous because these tasks are integrated and allow her to monitor the progress of cause through to effect. “Every day I feel like I’m making a change,” she says. “Every day I feel like I’m making a difference. We really are on the ground, in the classroom, at the farm, working with them every day. And if I see things that aren’t working on the ground level, I have the—I don’t know if power’s the right word—to change things very quickly. So you have a really, really quick feedback loop. It’s great.”

This is made possible, she says, by a sense of shared leadership. “I think a lot of that has to do with native models of leadership,” she says. “We really view leadership as being the person at the bottom of the totem pole that’s supporting the workers above you. I think that has a lot to do with the way that Kukui and Gary, the founders, lead. A lot of times it’s about supporting us. It’s a very democratic working environment, and it’s very intellectually rigorous. Every day in the office, for at least an hour, you’ll hear us heatedly arguing over stuff: about the education system, about the homeless problem, about how we can better do things. Always talking about numbers, and research, and what was in the news that day. I love it. I really feel like I can be very creative, and I’m surrounded by people who are very intelligent, always asking questions, and who care.”

Peggy Baker—Small Is Manageable: On the other side of the United States sits the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States, the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. For the past 13 years, 60-year-old Peggy Baker has acted as librarian and director. Making $60,000 a year, she epitomizes the kind of person one might expect to find in this role. She boasts two master’s degrees, one in library science and one in Latin. She is a self-professed history buff, and in explaining her choice of workplace, she says, “If you’re in Plymouth and you’re a history person,