Filling Gaps and Fulfilling Dreams: Making Your First Administrative Hire

Hiring an administrator is one of the most significant steps volunteer-run choruses can take to support their organization’s growth and development. During the height of the pandemic, most organizations were too busy staying afloat to make that kind of move, but recently a number of choruses have decided they are ready for the plunge. The five organizations represented in this story are facing today's hiring challenges by relying on strategies that evidence an increasing willingness to think big.

As a longtime leader in the choral field, Jen Rogers has observed first hires from multiple perspectives. After 13 years with the Phoenix Chorale, more than five of them as CEO, she launched her firm Sound Management Consulting in 2021. She feels fortunate to have worked since then with a broad cross-section of choruses considering or actively seeking new administrative leadership. But she is well aware that their task can be challenging. Budgets are typically limited, and workplace demands are seemingly endless. The person you hire, whatever the role, will “have to be able to do a lot of things. We’re always looking for this unicorn person,” she says. “The need is really great.” Rogers herself has just filled one of those needs. This November, she joined the San Diego Master Chorale (SDMC) as its first full-time executive director.


Deciding It’s Time to Hire

For reasons that are easy to understand, the decision to hire an administrative leader or support person is often a reactive one for volunteer-run organizations feeling the pressure of maintaining operations. Inevitably, volunteers move on, sometimes with little notice, and sometimes because the workload has burned them out. Dealing with turnover can be a constant challenge. At Angel City Chorale in Los Angeles, executive director Winifred Neisser quickly learned why she’d been hired. “There were people who were doing essential jobs, and nobody was overseeing them,” she says.

But the decision to hire administrative help is also a strategic one. Angel City began to think bigger about the organization in 2018 after getting national TV exposure on America’s Got Talent. The board sensed potential for the chorus to grow, but to do that “it became clear to us that we needed more of an infrastructure,” Neisser says. “There was nobody looking at the fact that maybe we were spending money that we didn't need to spend, or maybe things weren't being done in the most efficient way.”

Right from the time he founded his Bay Area treble ensemble 21V in 2021, Martín Benvenuto planned to hire an artistic administrator to help him with daily operations and establish structure for his new enterprise. The move was important not only to allow him to focus on the music-making, but also to signal his ambitions to his professional singers and to potential supporters. “Obviously there's a lot of volunteerism that is involved in any of these endeavors,” he says, “but having some structure from the get-go I think helped portray us as serious.”

For nearly three quarters of a century, the Alexandria (Virginia) Harmonizers hewed to the traditional, fraternal model for chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society, but in the past few years, board member and volunteer executive director Randall Eliason says the Harmonizers have been aiming to transition to an “outward-looking community choral organization,” one that would involve multiple singing groups. “Anyone who comes to the door who wants to sing, we're going to have a place for them,” he says. To move toward that goal, the chorus adopted a strategic plan in 2018, and one of its goals was to hire its first paid staff. General manager Susan Fitzpatrick came on board this past spring.

A culture shift in the SDMC board about five years ago led to Jen Rogers’s hiring. Some new board members, including current president Julie Ann Sih, felt the organization should move away from the “shoestring budget model” that was then in place. Their thinking was guided by the analysis of a nonprofit consultant, which concluded that one of the chorus’s primary challenges, retaining active members of its working board, stemmed from a previous board’s decision to eliminate a half-time executive director position and divvy up that work among board members. “It's difficult to recruit people to serve on a working board with no admin support if they don't already know and love you,” she says. The consultant’s proposed solution? Invest in a professional executive director. Jen Rogers took over November 1 from Sih, who had been serving in that role as a volunteer.


Finding the Means

At the time it adopted its strategic plan, the Alexandria Harmonizers board started setting aside enough money to cover the general manager’s salary for the first year. At that point, they intended that the position would be “completely self-funding, or at least would become close to self-funding,” Eliason says. The Youth Chorale of Central Minnesota (YCCM) used a similar strategy, says artistic director Garrett Lathe. He notes that there was “a good amount of funding” in place to cover executive director Robyn Hennen’s salary when she started in June, and the job description stipulates that she will lead at least two fundraising campaigns each year. To determine an appropriate salary level, Lathe says YCCM consulted Chorus America surveys and looked at comparable positions posted by Minnesota nonprofits and other online resources.

In the current job market, Sih feels it’s important to show “you’re willing to pay somebody for the level of experience you’re asking for.” Coming out of the pandemic, the SDMC had enough reserves on hand to get through the new E.D.’s first four to six months, but Sih says they wanted to extend the timeline to three years. The board contracted with a professional grant writer, whose pitch to a local foundation yielded $50,000—less than requested, but Sih says an individual donor stepped up with a matching grant that took them to their goal.

A chorus such as 21V can only dream of the donor base the SDMC has built in its nearly 60-year history. “Many funding sources are not available to new organizations,” Benvenuto says. But in his fundraising conversations, he has learned plans to hire staff can be a selling point. It sends the message that the chorus is serious about sustainability, “putting the organization in a better place to pursue grants.”


Defining the Job

No matter how much money you have set aside for that first hire, it will never be enough to pay someone to take care of every administrative need you’ve identified. So designing the position and deciding on a title become a matter of meeting as many needs as you can within the parameters of your budget. Broadly speaking, options range from clerical support to operations management to executive leadership.

Benvenuto and a consultant he hired to help launch 21V started by describing the support they wanted most and considered several titles to capture it, including administrative assistant. Eventually they settled on artistic administrator. It felt like the right choice for a professional group, says Benvenuto, “because a lot of it had to do with managing singer contracts and documentation, venues, and production logistics.” The job posting did not require a constant presence on site, and as a result, Benvenuto heard from several remote applicants. The person hired, Jungmee Kim, lives in Milan, Italy, and will make biannual visits to the Bay Area, ideally around the group’s concerts, Benvenuto says.   

The Harmonizers’ new general manager is focusing on communications, marketing, and development, while Eliason will remain the organization’s volunteer executive director. Creating a mid-level position may not be your chorus’s ideal, but it can be a sensible compromise. “It’s a great way to bring somebody in,” says Rogers, “a way for them to grow into being an executive director.”

At the same time, Rogers advises choruses not to lose sight of their long-term vision. While she understands that even basic admin help can provide welcome relief, it’s often a reactive move—a response to where the organization is at this moment. Instead of focusing on “what it is you're trying to offload,” she argues, “build a position based on where you'd like to be. Look at your assets and resources and try to project where you'd like the organization to be in the future.” From previous experience, Lathe concluded that a position titled “business manager” was not enough for the YCCM. He feels an executive-level leader is essential for organizational development and fundraising and as a complement to the artistic director, someone who becomes “the face of the organization to the business community, to the arts community.”

Preparing to apply for the grant that will support its new executive director’s salary, the SDMC board learned aiming too low might be counterproductive. Asked to look for lessons from a similar, unsuccessful, grant application a previous board filed several years ago, a person familiar with the potential grantor said the request “should have been more ambitious,” according to Sih. Fearing it couldn’t afford an executive, the previous board scaled back the request, asking only enough to hire a development director. “The bigger ask would have actually looked more sustainable to the foundation. That was what we needed,” says Sih.

Once you build a position based on where you’d like to be, you may end up with a job description like Eliason’s. The Alexandria Harmonizers board “started off making a list of things we wanted the general manager to do and sent that around to a few people,” he says. It was a long list. “The universal reaction was, ‘This is more than a full-time position, and you're advertising this as a half-time position, so you need to pare it back.’”


Conducting the Search and Making the Hire

Naturally, the realism you apply in designing and advertising the position needs to carry over into the selection process. “The pool of qualified, interested, and passionate candidates is probably pretty small,” Rogers cautions. Lathe says the YCCM’s full-time E.D. opening this year attracted fewer applicants than the chorus received in two previous hires for a part-time position. The low unemployment rate has made it harder for Angel City to hire for project jobs, Neisser has found. And it’s true all over, says Rogers. “It's just really tough to find folks right now.”

You are unlikely to end up with a finalist for your opening who both resonates with your mission and possesses all of the experience you seek. “The important thing is to find somebody with the soft skills,” Lathe believes, “because hard skills are trainable.” The YCCM’s new executive director does not have much financial background, but she has “a wealth of experience in constituent management,” he says. “Learning QuickBooks is much easier than learning how to deal with difficult parents.” The SDMC strategy involved assessing finalists’ strengths and lining them up against the chorus’s greatest needs, one of which Sih identifies as marketing leadership, especially developing and diversifying the SDMC audience.

Rogers also believes ADEI goals belong at the center of the hiring process, and that recruiting more diverse job candidates is particularly crucial. “It's becoming more and more of a focus area,” she has noticed, but “I would say it's not at the depth and breadth that we would all like for it to be.” In all the recent hires represented in this story, choruses report that they included welcoming statements in their job postings. In its notices, 21V described itself as “a professional ensemble of soprano and alto voices of all gender identities that seeks to bring change in a traditionally non-inclusive industry. We particularly welcome those who bring the gifts of diversity to the organization,” says Benvenuto. The SDMC advertised for candidates who have the ability to make connections with one or more of San Diego's multicultural communities, says Sih.

Listing a salary range when you post a job, which Rogers flags as an important “best practice” to follow, also makes for a more equitable hiring process. Not only do candidates in general value this kind of organizational transparency, research shows that it promotes trust and reduces gender and racial wage gaps.

Among this group of choruses, progress toward ADEI goals was mixed. The Alexandria Harmonizers, whose board was once all-male, hired a woman as its general manager. Others reported challenges with outreach, like Lathe who found that in central Minnesota, “there just isn't the infrastructure to try to recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds.” Rogers says she understands the challenges, but she believes ADEI must be near the top of the priority list in the hiring process. “I’ve seen firsthand that it's an initiative that is critical to keeping this music relevant,” she says.


Making the Transition Successful

Fellow board members asked Winifred Neisser to step in as interim executive director of Angel City in 2018 and, after a competitive search, hired her a few months later. At the time, there was no real onboarding process at the previously all-volunteer organization. She could rely to some extent on organizational skills developed over nearly two decades as an executive in a major for-profit corporation, but to her, the first couple years still felt like “the choir was always moving, and I was running after it.”

“The good news and the bad news about being the first one is that you have to invent or re-invent systems,” she says, and early on she didn’t have much guidance. “It is exciting, but it is also time-consuming and terrifying.” Four years after she began, the operation has gotten more efficient, she feels, thanks largely to a reorganized committee structure and support from board members with experience running nonprofits. No doubt, some of that success is also due to the commitment Neisser brings to the position. “This is not a job that you take just because you need a job,” she says. “It really has to be something that you are emotionally attached to it to make it work.”

But that level of attachment can also work against your transition. New leaders “laser focused on trying to achieve” may be reluctant to ask for the help they need, says Rogers. “It's really hard to be in charge and have everybody look at you and want the answers, and for you to have to raise your hand and say, ‘I need support.’” Anticipating that need, Lathe says the YCCM has built a thorough orientation process, one that includes a tool that tracks mastery of hard and soft skills so its new E.D. can “see what they're needing to accomplish, have a timeline, and be able to ask for help when it's needed.” Eliason and the Alexandria Harmonizers’ general manager touch base in a weekly call to discuss her immediate plans, he says, and attending rehearsals, performances, and other events has helped her become familiar with chorus history and culture.

To help manage the SDMC executive’s workload, Sih says the chorus’s directors will remain a working board—in the short run, at least—so volunteers will continue to provide administrative support. A move like that makes volunteers happy too, as far as Neisser is concerned.  For a largely volunteer organization like Angel City to be successful, she believes “members have to feel like they own it.” That goes for professionals too, according to Benvenuto. He says the singers in 21V have agreed to share responsibilities for the music library, setting up for rehearsals, editing program books, and more.

Because no hiring process is perfect, no orientation system has all the answers, and no candidate checks all the boxes, hiring always involves a leap of faith. Even with clear benchmarks in place, gauging a new hire’s effectiveness can be challenging, says Rogers, especially if that person is the only paid administrator. “I'm always encouraging organizations that you have to trust that they're going to do the work,” she says. Nonprofit work is difficult, she adds, and it evolves over time. The answers seldom come quickly, especially for new hires with executive responsibility. Those lessons and others have taught her that “starting out with trust is really important.”

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