Employee benefits at arts non-profits down over last decade: study

Over the past 10 years, administrative staff at arts non-profits have seen a decline in their employee benefits, according to a report by the Cultural Human Resources Council.

Nearly 500 organizations participated in the survey, more than double the 218 respondents to the 2008 study. Therefore, the data may simply paint a clearer picture of the benefits landscape rather than a decline in coverage, says Katherine Carleton, executive director at Orchestras Canada in Peterborough, Ont.

Nevertheless, “the message that comes through loud and clear to me is that small and mid-sized arts organizations haven’t typically offered benefits to administrative staff and they still aren’t,” she says.

Read: What stops small businesses from offering benefits?

While more organizations offer life insurance and long-term disability insurance than they did in 2008, the frequency of dental benefits has dropped significantly: by 12 per cent in organizations with operating budgets under $1 million and 38 per cent in organizations with budgets over $1 million, according to the report.

Across all sectors, 85 to 95 per cent of Canadian employers offer health benefits, the report noted. But among arts non-profits, the number drops to 73 per cent for large organizations and a mere 30 per cent for small ones.

“If you think about benefits, it’s just an extension of compensation,” says Yafa Sakkejha, general manager at Beneplan Inc. in Toronto. She suggests that while highly profitable technology companies up the ante on benefits to attract and retain talent, arts organizations likely don’t have that flexibility. After all, their lack of profitability is in their name.

Read: Flipping the conversation about benefits 

The report also found that arts non-profits face high employee turnover: 13.3 per cent compared to an average of 7.1 per cent across all industries. Carleton notes there has long been a tension in orchestra management between investing in performances and investing in infrastructure, and many smaller organizations lean towards the former. This can lead to high turnover among administrative employees, which in turn jeopardizes orchestras’ ability to raise money, sell tickets and effectively manage their expenses.

This high churn rate has led to some insurers shying away from working with non-profits, says Sakkejha, noting that if an employee is about to give notice or suspects they’re going to be let go because a big grant wasn’t renewed, they’ll likely max out their benefits before they leave, 

“So when you look at a curve of employee benefits spend of an individual over their life cycle . . . you get a huge spike right at the end of their relationship,” she adds. “So the more churn you have, the more of those spikes you get.”

To make up for the drop in traditional health benefits, many organizations offer non-health-related benefits such as flex time (73 per cent of small employers and 63 per cent of large ones), work-from-home arrangements (68 per cent and 77 per cent, respectively) and unpaid sabbaticals (16 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively).

“I’m not sure it’s the good news it’s being presented as,” says Carleton. While many orchestras offer flex time, performances are often on evenings and weekends, so flexible schedules may be less of a perk and more of “an opportunity for the job to expand beyond eight hours a day.”

Either way, Sakkejha points out that trend isn’t unique to non-profits: while startups are more likely to offer some health coverage, they also consider their nap room, foosball table and bring-your-dog-to-work policy to be benefits as well. But those kind of startup perks might not be the best fit for arts organizations.

Read: Why startups should resist the allure of a Cadillac benefits plan

According to the report, just eight per cent of small non-profits and 17 per cent of large ones offer a maternity leave top-up. Yet many of these organizations employ many women, notes Sakkejha.

“Women want private rooms to pump breast milk sometimes. If there’s no mat leave top-up and they’re coming back to work, [they might think,] ‘OK, it’s cool to have a foosball room but I need somewhere to pump . . ..’”

So employers really need to sit down with their teams and have honest conversations about what the organization can do, within their means, to make them happy, she says.