Making the First Hire

Hiring your chorus’s first employee is an important step. Here’s how to make sure you get it right.

All by itself, the love of singing can be enough to sustain a chorus. Eager singers and supporters often prove willing to handle everything from filing sheet music to strategic planning—for a while, anyway.

But volunteer energy is not an unlimited resource, and as your chorus grows, you run an increasing risk of burning out even your most devoted helpers. You know your chorus is facing this reality when you begin to hear conversations like this:

  • Stuff is slipping through the cracks. The season announcement is late. No one is lined up to take tickets at next weekend’s concert. Has anyone renewed our liability insurance?
  • Board members aren’t stepping up to help. A couple of them are saying they’re burned out. I’m worried they’re going to quit.
  • If we had an experienced fundraiser, we’d be able to expand our programming. If we had a savvy marketer, our audiences would be bigger. If we had a reliable office manager, we’d be a lot more efficient.

No doubt someone also brings up the obvious solution: Let’s just hire someone to do this work. Which naturally leads to the question: How are we going to make that happen?

Knowing When It’s Time to Hire

In her three decades managing the Washington Chorus, Dianne Peterson has consulted with numerous choruses contemplating their first administrative hire. “It’s one of the top five issues choruses face,” she says. Peterson herself was a first hire. As a singer and a member of the chorus’s working board, she had been volunteering 30-40 hours a week, but eventually had to tell the board she needed paying work. The board got behind her vision for structural change, and found a way to hire her as general manager and development director.

In Los Angeles, Jen Mulder faced a similar situation as board chair of Vox Femina. By last year, serving as de facto executive director, she found herself putting in 15-20 hours a week, on top of running her own financial advice firm. Like Peterson, she threw down the gauntlet—not as a threat, she says, but simply to let colleagues know she would have to step down if they couldn’t offer relief. “That's when the ideas started rolling in,” she says. Vox Femina’s first executive director started work in December.

Alex Speir
Alex Speir, Boston Choral Ensemble.

Over its 15-year existence, the Boston Choral Ensemble (BCE) has steadily grown more ambitious, according to board president Alex Speir, who came to the chorus as a tenor in 2012. Until about two years ago, the working board had run the organization effectively, he notes, but they began to realize they needed help in order to grow. In a “soul-searching board meeting,” members concluded that without hiring, they could not sustain their vision “to preserve and promote engaging music.” The chorus hired a part-time choral administrator in 2014.

If your chorus is dealing with similar issues, it probably means you’re growing, according to Sherburne Laughlin, senior professorial lecturer in the Arts Management Program at American University. In her course on boards and governance in the arts, and in her consulting, planning the first hire has become a familiar topic. She’s found that overlooked responsibilities and volunteer burnout are common warning signs. “You might also see some kind of crisis,” she adds. “Like not filing your taxes.”

Finding the Means

Despite the strain, postponing action may feel easier than carving out additional time to find the money, define the job, recruit candidates, make the hire, and integrate the new employee into your operation. Mulder acknowledges that was her biggest obstacle. “Everything took much longer than I wanted it to. On the other hand, I wouldn't have wanted to rush the process.”

For Vox Femina, the process began with a fundraiser called “Song Cycle,” a Saturday bike-a-thon that earned $30,000 in donations solicited by participating riders. Another revenue option for small choruses might be capacity-building grants. Laughlin says local arts councils often offer them to help constituents create new positions. BCE was able to hire its new administrator with money already on hand. After much wavering, Speir says the board decided several years of increasing revenue justified the move. That’s what it comes down to, says Laughlin; nothing will happen until the board decides expanding capacity is important.

Defining the Job

When she’s asked for advice on first hires during buttonhole sessions at Chorus America conferences, Peterson responds with questions of her own: “Why are you doing this? What do you need the most?”

Dianne Peterson
Dianne Peterson presenting at a Washington Chorus event with Terri Allen, the executive director of CAAPA.

If the need is very specific—a grant writer, a marketer, or a graphic designer, for example—she says a contractor might be the answer. She points to a couple of advantages: you can avoid paying taxes and benefits, and if the contractor doesn’t work out, you can move on fairly easily.

But more often Peterson hears from choruses wanting a general manager or an administrative coordinator who can handle a variety of functions. If you are a typical volunteer chorus aiming to grow, the first draft of your job description might easily include more than a dozen high-level responsibilities. If your budget for the position is also typical, the description might end with the words, “10-15 hours a week.” That’s not a recipe for attracting well-qualified, responsible candidates.

To be realistic about the amount of work you’ll be asking your new hire to put in, have the volunteers currently handling those duties track their time. Laughlin says it’s reasonable to expect the new hire will introduce efficiencies. Mulder and the Vox Femina board, with advice from leaders of other LA-area nonprofits, spent about three months developing their job description to prioritize responsibilities and accurately reflect the chorus’s greatest needs.

Boston Choral Ensemble board members are holding on to their management responsibilities. But with their new administrator, who works four to six hours a week, they can let go of creating PowerPoints, writing press releases, and managing annual campaigns. That said, they didn’t emphasize clerical responsibilities in advertising the position. Speir says they wanted someone who is invested in the arts—not someone from the chorus itself, however, because Speir says they feared awkward reporting relationships. They managed to find someone who also has a day job at a local music school.

If your first hire is going to be a director, you’d be wise to target someone who can grow into the position, says Laughlin. Without other paid staff on board, the new person is certain to spend time scheduling appointments and making copies. “Practically speaking, you’re probably talking about a skilled administrator, not an executive director—but not a newbie or a grad student, either.” Experience putting systems in place, especially financial management systems, can be a significant asset, notes Laughlin, because volunteer organizations are seldom able to build and maintain them.

Mulder and Wink
Jen Mulder and Rebecca Wink, Vox Femina’s first executive director, together at a 2016 concert. Credit: Sarah Block

With those practical concerns in mind, Mulder advertised for a managing director. She thought it would be a good next step for someone from a large organization who wanted more responsibility. Vox Femina received about 30 applications, of which ten had appropriate qualifications, Mulder says. In negotiations with the top candidate, she agreed to upgrade the title to executive director, but she made it clear the job would be very hands-on.

If your director is going to be part-time, plan to make the job full-time as soon as you can. “There’s no such thing as a part-time executive director,” Laughlin says. “Anyone that manages people or processes is not part-time.” You may also want to offer your new director a role in shaping the vision for the job; the respect and the latitude are likely to be persuasive. But the board knows the organization’s history and greatest needs. Laughlin recommends sharing the responsibility.

Conducting the Search

If anything involved in making a first hire is simple, it may be advertising the job. It’s easier than it used to be, at least, thanks to the Internet. Along with local arts council and nonprofit job boards, there’s the Arts Journal website and its daily e-newsletter. “That’s the first place I’d post,” says Laughlin. But don’t stop there, she says. And Speir agrees: “Not all great candidates respond to postings.” For him and the BCE search committee, effort invested in networking with professional and social connections has paid off.

Sherburne Laughlin
Sherburne Laughlin, American University.

Although criteria for determining your best-qualified candidate will depend on the specific requirements of the position you’re filling, one quality is essential for any first hire: a desire to collaborate. “To move the ball forward in an organization going through transition, you need a big-time team player,” Laughlin says. Volunteers will be letting go of responsibilities, some long-held, some cherished. There will be emotions to contend with, some deep-seated. To enter that setting issuing directives would be a huge miscalculation, says Peterson. “This is a big change for the organization. The new hire should come in as a partner.”

Setting Up a Successful Transition

Once you find someone who can play well with others, you still have to integrate that person with the rest of the team. Laughlin advises starting with the assumption that the transition is going to be tricky. Here are some issues to anticipate:

The established chorus culture. If you have a “clubby culture,” understand the newcomer may have trouble fitting into it, says Laughlin. Help the old guard realize the new person has not “come to take away their toys.”

Important relationships inside the chorus. Early in the transition schedule, Peterson recommends get-acquainted sessions with the music director, board chair, and other board members to help the new hire understand their needs and work styles.

Important relationships outside the chorus. Longtime supporters may fear change within the organization they’ve grown to love. Mulder heard from donors expressing concerns that Vox Femina was “changing from its grassroots foundations, where it was always kind of haphazard, to a formal structure that isn't as appealing to them.” Others wondered how the chorus could afford to be more ambitious. That gave Mulder a chance to tout the successful bike-a-thon and other new funding sources.

The temptation to dump work on the new hire. Burned-out board members and volunteers will be desperate to offload their least favorite tasks. Knowing that, Speir made it a point to be up front with board members about their new administrator’s priorities and time constraints. BCE gave her a month just to get acquainted, and started by limiting her schedule to six hours a week (more during concert weeks), which imposed clear restraints on her workload. At the same time, be sure to reassure volunteers that you value them, says Peterson. They are well equipped to remain in charge of responsibilities like the music library. “It’s important to keep them engaged,” she says. “You don’t want to lose the spirit of a community chorus.”

The need to re-educate the board. The point of hiring administrative staff is to allow the board to focus on governance and strategy. During the transition, the board must learn to practice both restraint and big-picture thinking, says Laughlin. A decision on brochure color now gets delegated. Core issues like fundraising always go to the top of the agenda. Often the distinction is very clear, but not always. Laughlin suggests giving board members a list of tips that help them focus on what matters most. The message will get through more easily if you have succeeded in hiring that much-valued team player. It works both ways, Laughlin says. She’s found that board members can quickly learn what most needs attention by initiating a heart-to-heart with the director: “If I’m the board chair, I want to know what keeps the CEO awake at night.”

The challenge of day-to-day communication. Often, first hires work part-time. If the chorus has no office space, they work at home. They may answer to more than one supervisor. At BCE, where all of those factors pertain, they’ve established document sharing and an administrative project queue in Google. Board members and the artistic director submit tasks and propose deadlines. Speir works with everyone to rank priorities. The administrator tracks her hours using a free, web-based app called Toggl. For Vox Femina, the new executive director’s focus on fundraising made close contact important. Mulder, a financial planner, was able to carve out space in her own office. The location affected the candidate pool, Mulder says, because several applicants preferred to work remotely.

The need to evaluate performance. As soon as your new hire is on board, make sure you both understand how success will be defined. Laughlin recommends assigning metrics based on responsibilities listed in the job description. Schedule a check-in six months later to look at progress toward the goals. Particularly for a first hire, an early review is important, she says.

So Far, So Good

Hiring that first staff member can be considered a proud accomplishment for any chorus, but don’t expect it to solve all your problems, cautions Speir. “If you have a tough time with marketing, you’re still going to have a tough time with marketing.” Yet, his biggest surprise regarding the Boston Choral Ensemble’s 2014 hire is how well it’s all working. He finds the new staffing efficient and affordable, and “as a board we definitely have more bandwidth to pursue more interesting ideas.”

Since she came on board in December, Vox Femina’s new executive director has effectively taken on outreach, youth education, and donor development efforts, Mulder says. If successful, grant applications she’s filed will enable her to go full-time in July. In a parallel effort, Vox Femina is moving from a working board to a governing board with a higher level of financial responsibility and no responsibility for day-to-day operations.

Using a similar approach 32 years ago, Dianne Peterson introduced changes that transformed the Washington Chorus. Not only did she persuade the board to hire her as its first director, she championed board restructuring that has paid dividends. “We brought more people in, we broadened the circle. We increased the donor base and fundraising capacity.” The executive staff now numbers five. As Peterson looks ahead to retirement at the end of June, she still testifies to the significance of that first hire: “Choruses talk about it for years before they take that plunge, but often when they do they don’t look back.”


Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singers who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.

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