Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To fail and fail big: In Action: F*ck You Money (or how to build a Working Capital Fund)

In mid-May my partner and I adopted a beautiful newborn girl.  We named her Miranda.  I went on maternity leave the day she was born.  I was out for 3 months.  Sort of (e.g., I’m a control freak).
Six weeks of my 3 month maternity leave were paid by The Field.  2 weeks were vacation.  This means that for one month I wasn’t paid.  I have now come back to work ¾ time.  (My partner and I have some personal savings to support one month unpaid.  My partner works in tech and he also got paid parental leave.  We were both able to be with the baby for three months while working very intermittently and remotely.  Amazing.  Unheard of. We are privileged.)

How did The Field pay for my maternity leave?  In 2008, The Field strategically set aside unrestricted surplus money in a Working Capital Fund for “special initiatives, cash flow needs and financial challenges.”  We used it for the first time in 2013 when our first staff member went on maternity leave and we had to move offices.  We used it for the second time for my maternity leave.  Success! The Field has money to support staff leave!

Now how did we save that money in the first place? 1) We committed to saving. Every year, we included an expense line item in our budget for $2-$5k for our Working Capital Fund - right alongside traditional expenses like rent, salaries and paperclips.  And then we fundraised and earned income toward meeting this and all annual expenses.  We were transparent with all of our stakeholders and donors that we were doing this for our resilience, innovation and nimbleness.  No one questioned it. In fact, we were applauded for being “capitalized” unlike many of our peers who were undercapitalized.  2) We committed to ending every year with an unrestricted surplus  that we could then allocate to the Fund.  (How? We grew our earned income and unrestricted individual giving.) 3) We paid strong attention to our expenses.  We probably scrimped at times. (I wouldn’t necessarily do that again.  I would rather push income than scrimp.)

How can you do this in your life? At our “to fail and fail big” APAP session last January one of our guest speakers, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, told us that they always have a small pile of “f*ck you  money” so that their projects are not vulnerable to the vagaries of funders and producers.  You too, dear reader, should have a Working Capital Fund or f*ck you money for cash flow, medical needs, dream projects etc.  Don’t tell me you can’t.  Don’t tell me you are already hand to mouth. I know.  But even you, dear reader, can save a dollar a day.  Yes, you can.
So can a leader of a small non-profit really go on maternity leave?  Yes.
I have three Executive Director friends who are pregnant right now. They are all a bit nervous about maternity leave.   One of them also has a Board of Directors that is anxious about her leave (“what will happen without YOU?”).  The Field Board was incredibly supportive of my adoption plan and I gave them little to no reason to worry about my absence. 

Here’s what I learned on my maternity leave, some failures and some successes

1)      Give people an opportunity to lead (and then really let them lead): Instead of hiring an outside interim Executive Director I promoted two senior staff to “Interim Co-Executive Directors”.  They each brought different skills to the table and different energies.  The rest of our small staff and Board trusted them deeply. Success: They did a stellar job.  They became closer as colleagues.  They seemed to feel more empowered and invested in The Field.  Failure: see #3 below. 
2)      Check-in: I did weekly check-ins with my Co-EDs on any major projects or decisions to be made.  Success: They felt supported.  I felt connected and that I wouldn’t come back in 3 months to an unrecognizable situation, project or decision.
3)      I am a control freak:  This has definitely served me at times (i.e., success: I’ve gotten a lot done the way I want it done) but not for the long haul.  Failure: I worked more during my maternity leave than just weekly check-ins. I spent some time on a few grant reports and proposals that I just felt I had to do myself.  It wasn’t terrible for me (and my family) but I am sure it would have been fine if I had NOT worked on them.  Failure: the staff felt a tad confused (who is doing what? when?) and maybe less empowered.

So what’s the end result? I feel valued by an organization and a Board that supports me as a rounded human being with a growing family.  I feel like it’s possible to be an Executive Director and a Mom.  I leave work on time now.  I work 4 days a week.  I don’t work 80 hours a week.  I feel efficient and effective.  So far.  So good.

But I’ve been warned by Mom/artist friends to not talk about my baby.  “No one wants to hear it.  Everyone is working 80 hours a week for too little money. This is what we value.  Not family.”
Bullsh*t. I disagree.  I want it to be different. For me, for The Field, for others.  I’m working in my small ways to make it different.  At The Field at least and by being transparent, vulnerable and active in my work and in posts like these.

My question to you dear reader is: where do you want the arts to be different?  How do you want your life to be different? And what are you doing to make it different?

P.S.  I love the Artists Raising Kids compendium from Headlong!  Check it here

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