I'm on the schedule to teach at an event, but can't afford to travel there!
October 4, 2009 9:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm on the board of directors of an org that's hosting an event. I'm expected to pay my way to the event, though I'm teaching and donating my time. This is a serious financial hardship for me, but not for some of my peers. How do I ask for/get assistance when they don't need it? How do I encourage the org to move to this model for everyone?

I am on the board of directors of an (international) music organization. I've been on the board for about a year, but have been involved in this community for several years, and am considered "elite" and established in this genre. There are 19 people on the board, many of us new, all of us considered the cream of the crop of this genre (I tell you this by way of set up, not to brag). This org has started to partner with various festivals and events, some of which are 2-3 day events filled with concerts, competitions and workshops. We, the board members, are encouraged to teach at these workshops. Our expertise runs an impressive gamut, so we comprise a good amount of the instructors at these events.

The problem for me (and for the org, as I see it) is that the board members are not only expected to run workshops gratis, but to pay for (our) own travel expenses and donate the costs in kind. For some on the board, this is no hardship at all; for others, it very much is. I'm in the latter group, unfortunately. There's an event coming up next month at which I'm scheduled to teach. If I drove there, it would be a 15 hour drive each way, and the gas would cost close to that of a plane ticket (plus the wear and tear on my car). I would also be driving alone, so that plan seems prohibitive. I also happen to not know anyone in the area with whom I could stay, so I'd have to stay in a hotel, which is where everyone else is staying. I do not have the funds for this. I am struggling right now to pay my bills.

I have approached the org president privately, as well as the board member responsible for fundraising. I believe that our model for all such events should be that expenses should be covered, and both agree that should be what we work towards. We plan to talk about that in an upcoming board meeting. However, for this event, for ME, I'm not sure what to do, and it's coming down to the wire. The event is only a month away. I am on the schedule. There's still the chance that the org will come up with some $$ to cover me (though the policy has been that everyone covers their own expenses for these events), but my inability to pay has to be brought to a sub-committee to be approved or disapproved. That's fairly mortifying to me, but I guess it's the "price" I have to pay for not being as flush as other board members. And I'm not sure they'll approve it at all. In which case, my options are to not go, or to accrue more credit card debt, and pay. Though this would be a good event for me to attend, as both instructor and board member (it is a huge event, and a good one at which to make contacts, be visible, etc), it doesn't seem prudent to put these expenses on a credit card when I'm struggling so.

I guess my question is...what are your thoughts here? What would YOU do? How do I manage my embarrassment of being "exposed" to my peers as someone who needs financial help to get to this event, knowing that I may still be turned down? And then further, any thoughts on how to begin moving towards a model in which these expenses are paid for all board members via some fundraising program? I know that the latter might not be answerable without explicit info on this organization, so feel free to send me a private message.

posted by FlyByDay to Work & Money (16 answers total)
To some extent, you're in a position of power when it comes to negotiations: You're the one scheduled to teach, and unless the organization gives you the money to do so, you will not be teaching, which looks bad for them. Essentially, tell the board member responsible for funding (if there is one) that if you don't do this the financial loss to the organization will be worse than the cost of travel.

And don't worry too much about embarrassment. Joke about the situation, and you'll be more respected.
posted by LSK at 9:16 PM on October 4, 2009

Unfortunately, a lot of non-profits work this way. By accepting a seat on the board, you're pledging to financially support part of its operation, your part. (The upside is that all those pseudowork vacation junkets are tax deductible. This is enough for many people to be happy.)

LSK is right that it's best to just joke about it, or treat it lightly. "Musicians are supposed to be starving, right?"
posted by rokusan at 9:19 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I forgot to mention that all board members have a job within the org outside of these types of teaching things. I'm the Web Content Director, which is a fairly labor intensive job. I put together and oversee a volunteer staff of writers all over the country, I come up with story ideas, get comps for reviews, post all the new content, etc. I have new original content going up on this site consistently, and there is a significant readership. I probably spend 15 hours a week on this. So that's really how I financially support this org, and everyone on the board has a job of similar weight; the travel and teaching really seems like they should be reimbursed, though.
posted by FlyByDay at 9:27 PM on October 4, 2009

I don't think you should be embarrassed because someone might know you can't afford it. They way I look at these type of things is "It's not that I can't afford to spend the money on this, I choose not to spend the money on this" and that's how most people judge this kind of situation.

If I heard that a director wanted to be reimbursed, I'd assume that they chose not to spend money on that, and absolutely agree with that decision. This way of looking at these kind of situations has really helped me feel confident and not embarrassed. I hope you can reframe it in your own head to feel the same way.
posted by taff at 9:39 PM on October 4, 2009

An ex-wife of mine was a professional musician in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and she was always irked by the orchestra members who donated back their meager seasonal salaries to the symphony association, and even more put out that she regularly received comments and suggestions to the effect that she was being selfish, by keeping hers, and by pushing for what she thought were "fairer" contract negotiations, whenever the musicians contract came up. But since that was more than 1/2 the orchestra in those days, I always pointed out that if those "semi-pro" players hadn't been subsidizing the costs of their own places in the orchestra, there wouldn't have been an NSO.

In these financially tight times, I'm afraid that many arts organizations are barely limping along, from year to year, trying mightily just to raise the money, and do the programs they have done in previous years. If you're a board member, you should have access to the books, and be able to see what your organization's income, expenses and reserves actually are. As a board member, you have a first fiduciary responsibility to the organization, above any personal obligations to yourself, to help manage its affairs for the betterment of the organization, but if you can find ways to increase the income, or justifiably reduce the expenses the organization has, you might then, in a secondary role as your own advocate, put in for some reimbursement. But I think you can expect to be seen as grasping and ungracious by many of those who are donating back their costs, if you merely shift things around to cover your own expense draw, or even that of others in similar roles.

If you can do a phenomenal job of fund-raising, however, particularly if you can line up new multi-year sources of support, your requests for expense reimbursement might be met more generously. Shoot for a 10:1 fund raising to personal expense ratio, if you expect smiles and thanks for your future participation, all around, however.
posted by paulsc at 9:42 PM on October 4, 2009

Understand that 'choosing not to pay for it' could be interpreted very close to resigning from the board, if it's an expectation that folks pay their own way.

I'm not defending the structure of this org (I wouldn't take a position like that, myself), just pointing out that some indeed do work this way / it's not that unusual.... and if you 'can't afford to be on the board' that might be a dealbreaker.

(It's certainly a legitimate reason to resign, too.)
posted by rokusan at 9:45 PM on October 4, 2009

I've been on an arts board myself for a few years, and in all that time, they've never asked me to pay my way for anything. Certainly I've been expected to donate my time and expertise, and I am fine with that. But if I were expected to GO INTO DEBT for one of its events, I would resign immediately. The sad part is that they would lose my input and expertise - but that is even more motivation for them to confront this and develop a policy around it. Do they expect board members to be major financial contributors? It sounds like you are serving as a case study. It may be embarassing to you right now, but it will aid in the development of a policy where people who are in similar situations in the future have recourse.
posted by Sully at 11:05 PM on October 4, 2009

Are the attendees of this workshop paying for the privilege of attendance? If so, and potentially even if not, you should frame the equation in simple terms: I cannot afford to travel to the event. If you would like me to teach and otherwise assist, I will need to have my expenses reimbursed. Otherwise, I hope it goes well and am happy to help out the best I can from here.

As Sully says, you absolutely should not take on debt for this purpose, not when it's "not prudent" and you're "struggling so" already. Make your needs known and stick to them.

You could also offer to perform additional services while you're at the event, perhaps volunteering to help out in a difficult or unpleasant area or offering to take on more responsibility. This way, you'd be increasing the value the organization received in return for paying your way.
posted by zachlipton at 11:39 PM on October 4, 2009

You may be surprised how many people are paying for it anyway when they can't afford it, either. Stepping forward and taking a stand and saying, "I can't afford this, if you can come up with the funds to pay my way I'm happy to donate my time, but otherwise I will be unable to attend," might not only do wonders for you, but free some of your peers from a financial commitment they're too afraid to turn down.
posted by larkspur at 11:48 PM on October 4, 2009

I don't know if there's a great answer to the issue of your feelings about exposure. It is what it is, and basically it boils down to you taking an esteem hit for the sake of educating your organization about the reality that not everyone's value as a component of an organization necessarily translates into an equivalent net worth. I'll say this: in your heart I bet you know that your income doesn't define your value. Hold on to that. The world will not always recognize it.

I AGREE (underline bold underline) with Sully. Don't go take on fresh debt for this. It just isn't right to ask that of you. If your org. doesn't get that, politely assert that you can't afford to participate, and let that lesson be what it is. The good thing is the die is pretty much cast - you've been straight about your (entirely reasonable, totally not to be ashamed about) financial reality, and the decision is in other hands. You're not bluffing or being a tightwad, you're just being reasonable about what an Board can reasonably expect of its members.
posted by nanojath at 11:49 PM on October 4, 2009

I've been in a similar position. There's an underlying feeling in this culture that one is somehow a lesser person for not being rich or for being concerned about money. You need to reject this belief. Then it becomes easy to know what to do.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:43 AM on October 5, 2009

Yours is an extremely common problem; I have never worked at a nonprofit where some version of this did not come up.

First, a caveat to all prospective board member, not specific to you, but more general-- be very very clear going in what your financial and time obligations will be. Find out why the organization wants you on the board. Be vain and specific, because there are only two real reasons to put someone on a board of directors, especially in a larger organization-- they want your money or they want the prestige or connections you will bring. Some people can bring both, but frankly that's rare. Ask outright what the specific financial obligations are-- common ones include minimum annual cash gift, "give or get" arrangement (ie either write a check or raise money from your friends), purchase of specified value or number of tickets to Galas and other fundraisers, access to corporate or foundation grants, name recognition, specific expertise and/or donation of services (this seems to be where you are) and use of personal contact lists. Some organizations expect all of these. Some cherry pick. If you cannot afford this, tell them before you join. If the organization cannot answer this question, do not join this board.

For you, if this event has already been published, and you let them publish it without telling them your difficulty, then you are stuck, you need to do this one. (However, all associated expenses are tax deductible, either as professional expenses or as charitable gift.) If you told them before they went to press that you couldn't afford it and they published anyway, you need, with the collusion of the ED, to come up with a last minute emergency preventing you from going. This can be as vague as "unable to attend for personal reasons," which also has the advantage of being true. Then you need to set some guidelines now going forward. Sit down with the ED, the board pres, and the education and/or development director and let them know exactly what you are able to afford. Maybe you can do closer events, or just one per year, or as many as they like, but they have to cover your expenses.

If you presented yourself, or didn't discourage the impression, as someone as "flush" as the wealthier members of the board, I just have no practical advice for you. Grow up. No one cares how much money you make, people expect artists to be poor, they're getting something else out of you (your prestige) and they know it. As a nfp executive with 30 years experience, I would be furious at a board member who wasn't up front with me about what s/he could afford-- you're in my budget and if you don't let me know upfront what line of that budget you can occupy then I've got to cut somewhere else to "afford" you. And here's what gets cut-- no new copy machine. An intern position. Raises. Trust me, when board members don't live up to their expectations that is what happens. Please be honest and forthright about your needs and abilities.
posted by nax at 6:33 AM on October 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

nax said it wonderfully. Board service is a volunteer role, but it is the highest-level volunteer role and can confer significant benefits to those who take it on, so the expected contributions of board members in terms of effort, time, leadership, and yes, finances, are high. It is the most serious service committment you can make to a nonprofit short of being on the staff, and you need to be very clear on the extent of that committment before you accept the role.

Just as an organization composes a board considering only the two reasons nax mentioned - to enhance either its stature, or its bottom line, or both - there are only two reasons to serve on a board: to enhance your professional standing, and/or to increase your social capital (networking, creating mutual obligations and support). In that light, I found this interesting and unusual:

I believe that our model for all such events should be that expenses should be covered, and both agree that should be what we work towards.

Covering expenses for board members' travel is something that would impact the budget and the program activities of the nonprofit pretty seriously. It's usual for these to be borne by the members themselves for this very reason: that the usefulness of the board member would be seriously undermined and perhaps washed out, or worse, by that member's becoming a drain on the nonprofit's budget.

People in fundraising and leadership in nonprofits often refer to a board member or donor's "capacity." By that they mean, basically, how much you have to give - money, talent, time. It's their job to know their constituent's capacity as clearly as possible so that they can guage the deployment of their resources in securing service, gifts, new contacts, etc. It's part of their planning and necessary for the organization to achieve fiscal stability. The disconnect you're experiencing now is arising because your ED appears not to have had a good understanding of your capacity. Perhaps this is because the board intake process did not make the committment clear, which is an organizational problem and should be clearly addressed; but even if that happened it may be at least partially attributable to your not asking the questions nax outlined above when you were considering taking a role on the board.

Perhaps there is a way you could raise funds to cover your own expenses by offering a workshop or master class for the organization with the understanding that those funds would support your travel. As a board member, you might want to hesitate before advocating that travel for board members be included in future budgets. The discussion about whether that should happen will need to take place within the framework of the organization's stated mission, and should also have the input of the organization's legal counsel. It may be determined to be a legitimate use of the organization's resources, but it may be the agreement of the board and counsel that it's not. Whatever happens there, though, it shouldn't be decided by fiat by the ED, because it is a budgetary matter and expenses need to support the mission - and seeing that that happens is your job, as a board member.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on October 5, 2009

Just as an organization composes a board considering only the two reasons nax mentioned - to enhance either its stature, or its bottom line, or both - there are only two reasons to serve on a board: to enhance your professional standing, and/or to increase your social capital.

Thank God that people also serve on boards because, in addition to these two self-serving reasons, they feel called to support the mission of the non-profit and answer that call by serving as board members.
posted by Roach at 1:03 PM on October 5, 2009

I'd also like to point out that capacity is not just your ability to give, it is also your willingness to give. Knowing a prospect's income is only the roughest metric of their actual capacity, you also have to understand their emotional and logistical relationship to giving, and their comfort zone with different types of giving (for instance, we have a board member who will buy as many tickets to events and galas as she can find bodies for, but simply WILL NOT just write a check).

Therefore, I think the committee discussion should not focus so much on how much YOU can afford, but more general guidelines about expectations. Once it gets to tactics for specific donors or board members, the discussion should simply not be in such a public form, you're right about that. Figuring out how to solicit specific donors, or what specific donors can afford, is a staff function, not a board function.
posted by nax at 6:21 AM on October 6, 2009

Thank God that people also serve on boards because, in addition to these two self-serving reasons, they feel called to support the mission of the non-profit and answer that call by serving as board members.

I take that as somewhat of a given, or you wouldn't be involved in the organization at all. But the difference between "supporting the mission" and "serving on the board" is one constituted of tremendous personal committment, and usually a will to serve alone is not sufficient to justify the commitment on either side.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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