Resources for Humans, Not Human Resources

As employees, we often think of “human resources” as our go-to for employee services and benefits, the department that’s supposed to look out for us and respond to issues that arise. While these elements are indeed within the scope of a well-functioning HR department in an organization, there is another focus – a focus that views humans as resources for the company.

This might seem a semantic or innocuous distinction, but it has far-reaching impact on how HR professionals are able to deliver their work, and how employees are ultimately treated, particularly when the chips are down. HR departments are tasked with protecting employees, but also with protecting the company from its employees, as in the case of harassment claims, workplace injury, etc. While certainly many HR professionals are looking out for their fellow employees, they have an additional responsibility to protect the company’s interest – a company that views the employees as assets.

In one way, it might seem nice to be viewed as a resource or an asset to an organization that you care about. It’s important to feel valued – but should your workplace be setting a value on you as a person, or should the workplace be setting a value instead on your work?

Semantics again? Yes, but important ones. It’s a bit easier to see the dangerous slippery slope when we look at terminology like “human capital.” Workers create capital, but they themselves should not be considered as such. Regardless of what the Supreme Court has to say on the subject, a company’s interest shouldn’t trump personal rights.

So, we’re making a small change at ArtsPool that we hope may have a big impact on the culture we’re building. We’re not using the term “Human Resources.” We’re instead using the less catchy, but better positioned “Workforce Administration.” We hope this language helps guide our intentions to support employees and operate within regulatory guidelines, without reducing the people of ArtsPool to entries on a balance sheet.

Questions or comments about our plans for workforce administration services? Please ask them in the comments section below or submit them via our contact form.

Photo: Niorcs

All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference 2014

Earlier this month, Max Dana and I traveled to Limerick, Ireland to give a presentation about ArtsPool at the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC). We were invited by dynamic thinker and arts producer Róise Goan, and we were delighted to have a chance to speak about ArtsPool and learn a bit about the Irish arts sector. When we returned to NYC, David Sheingold and Guy Yarden had some questions for us, and we thought we’d share the questions — and our responses here with you.

What feedback did you receive about ArtsPool?

Sarah: Generally people were curious and enthusiastic about the concept of resource sharing, and we received a lot of positive comments about our efforts to implement that concept into a functioning operational framework.

Max: One of the most striking comments I received was from a woman who said, “Thank you for that gift,” while passing me in the hallway after our presentation. It says a lot about the urgency of the need in the field that a presentation on topics as seemingly dry as legal compliance and financial management could be considered a gift to an artist or arts organization, but it also reaffirmed my belief that focusing on what arts workers need here and now — and recognizing that those needs are more than financial — will maximize the impact of ArtsPool in the long run.

Are the challenges that Irish arts companies have similar to those in the U.S.?

Sarah: The Irish arts sector is seeing a decrease in government funding, which is its primary (and in most cases only) funding source. This drop in funding is leading artists and arts workers in Ireland to ask questions about resource sharing that are similar to the context and questions that led to ArtsPool here in the U.S. Though the funding source ratios are quite different between our two countries, the decrease in the whole has a similar impact. A desire to take a more proactive approach from within the arts, rather than relying on externally controlled assets, is something that it appears we have in common as well.

Max: Irish arts organizations are experiencing a breakdown of the company model that is very similar to how the model is breaking down for younger generations of performing artists in the U.S. This breakdown in Ireland, however, is driven by decreases in government funding and a corresponding lack of foundation or individual giving to make up the difference, whereas the U.S. trend seems to be motivated more by a reluctance to take on the administrative overhead of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit when the same tax advantages and grant eligibility can be gained via the fiscal sponsorship model. Both cases result in a need for administrative services and the emergence of what in Ireland they call “the producer problem” — the need for independent creative producers to fill in the gap as well as methods for those producers to raise money to fund the productions they take on.

In what ways were the questions asked similar to or different than the kinds of questions that we typically get about ArtsPool?

Sarah: The first question from the Irish audience was the same question we hear first in the U.S.: how do the finances work? We also got questions about data protection and privacy, which are subjects that come up often here as well.

Max: We had one question about aesthetics that we had never considered: will there be any curation of ArtsPool’s members based on the type of work they make? The answer to this is obviously no — ArtsPool is agnostic with regards to the aesthetics or genre of the art it supports — but an interesting question remains below the surface about where the boundaries of the “nonprofit arts” field lie. How do you determine where the nonprofit world ends when performances are now happening in profit-generating places like art galleries and traditionally profit-generating organizations (such as bands) are not generating profit? Is an arts consultant who serves a group of 501(c)(3) nonprofits more a part of our “field” than a band who can’t make money because the economics of music are broken? I don’t think we have the answers to these questions yet, but I’m sure they will emerge as we begin to take on members.

Was the sensibility or ethos of ArtsPool aligned with people in the room or did this come across as radically divergent?

Sarah: The attendees seemed extremely keen to work together and collaborate, and they were actively seeking models for structuring such collaboration. ArtsPool seemed a welcome roadmap.

Max: In some ways it feels like a more radical concept in the U.S. because we have a system that is much more tied to the tax code, half a century of received wisdom about corporate structures, and the very American fetish for growth and institutionalization. Ireland’s arts sector is smaller, more geographically connected, more nimble, and intensely focused on practical solutions, so I could see resource sharing mechanisms gaining traction there quickly.

In what ways could the ArtsPool approach be valuable in the Irish arts context?

Sarah: It seemed that the Irish arts sector has far fewer issues of regulatory compliance than the American arts have in our nonprofit context. So, certain of the ArtsPool solutions to cut through layers of red tape are not needed in the same way in Ireland. However, ArtsPool’s structure for more general resource sharing can certainly find application in Ireland. In particular, ArtsPool’s model for co-employment/labor sharing seems quite relevant, as independent Irish producers currently cannot seek direct government funding (the primary source of income for the arts) in the same manner that Irish artists and arts organizations can. This “producer problem” that Max referenced earlier was an issue of specific focus at the conference.

Max: I could see the ArtsPool model being especially useful for the independent producers in Ireland who are helping artists get their work made in the absence of funding for formal company structures. Not only would it help bring down their administrative costs and free up valuable time, it would allow them to advocate more effectively at the national level for access to funding.

Any other take-away thoughts?

Sarah: Two things really struck me in particular. One was the newness of “individual fundraising” in the Irish arts context. It was like a surreal trip back in time to hear suggestions of starting “young patron groups” as an innovative way for engaging new funding streams. The other thing that keeps returning to my mind is something that came out of the break-out groups at the conference. There was a suggestion that the Irish arts sector doesn’t have a funding problem, it has a value problem. It was further explained that funding exists, but the arts aren’t valued enough culturally to be prioritized for the funding. This sounded painfully familiar, and the action steps of governmental advocacy and increased arts exposure for young people are steps we would do well to apply here in the States as well.

Max: The most eye-opening idea for me came from a presenter who took the radical approach of letting artists that he had previously programmed curate a season at his theatre. It was so successful that the following year he let a group of community members curate the season, and that season was even more successful than the previous year (artistically as well as financially). Collaboration clearly has value beyond simple resource sharing.


Do you have other questions for us? Please ask them in the comments section below or submit them via our contact form.


Shortly after publishing the concept paper on Collective Insourcing that Guy mentioned in his initial post, he and I were sitting at a café on Atlantic Avenue slugging coffee and wrestling with the deeper details of how this thing was actually going to work. (We still are, by the way: slugging coffee and wrestling with details, but progress has been made — at least on the details, if not the coffee habit.) We were trying to figure out the key that would really shift the model from a nonprofit service organization requiring consistent contributed income to sustain itself into something else — something that could (eventually) have a chance at self-sufficiency, something that could be fully member-driven and serve to keep resources growing within the arts field, rather than siphoning out of it.

After many coffee refills and many long pauses, we hit on something: labor sharing.

What if we could create a structure that would not only share hard resources and provide services, but also share the employees providing such services? Read More…

On Sunday, February 23rd, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel (Arts Research Now: NYC Dance in Context) at the Dance/NYC Symposium, hosted at the Gibney Dance Center. On the panel with me were: Anne Dunning of Arts Action Research, Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas, Jennifer Wright Cook of The Field, Monica Valenzuela of Staten Island Arts, and David Johnston of Exploring the Metropolis. The panel was moderated by Pamela Epstein, Assistant Director, Community Arts Development Program, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

I presented some of our research toward the development of ArtsPool’s business plan, which included the convening of a group of 12 arts organizations, varying in size and scope, to serve as a sample set for our research. With this group, we conducted a series of interviews, focus groups, and data gathering, which included reviews of CDP resources, budgets, contracts, corporate documents, etc. Though nuances varied (one group found payroll to be a struggle where another found it to be an easy task), the overall need for better organized and more efficient operations was heavily underscored through our conversations with these developmental participants. Read More…