Tools for the Brave New Board meeting


I just thought it might be important to convey that to you, after spending three posts complaining about awful board meetings. I truly wasn’t looking forward to this one – it was a planning retreat for university administrators that started at 8 am on a Monday after a long summer of blissful, meeting free time. But the planners used a number of tools that made the meeting seem far more productive than I expected.

I’ll get to some of the structure ideas later. But first, I want to share a couple of techie tools with you before your email dings six or seven times and you have to leave.

The first one is called Plickers (a play on the older, but now antiquated “clicker” technology). With the Plickers tool, each person gets a card with a kind of QR code on it. To vote, they hold up the card with the proper response facing upward, and the facilitator scans all of the responses in the room. Results show immediately on the screen. This allows a vote to be taken quickly, and anonymously. The website shows Plickers being used in classrooms of all ages, but I think they would be enormously useful in adult meetings as well.

Another tool I’ve used successfully in the classroom is Poll Everywhere. Poll Everywhere is different than Plickers (or clickers) in that it requires no special tools, and allows for individual answers, not just voting on a select number of choices. This means that it can also be easily used to collect ideas, do assessment, and raise questions. Again, interactive so everyone participates, requires less time than raising hands, and has the advantage of anonymity.

Okay, those are the tools. Now a couple of other ideas from my more-successful-than-expected staff retreat:

There was an opportunity to provide feedback for discussion prior to the meeting

Several days in advance, the facilitator sent out a prep document with several questions about issues facing our college in the coming year. Filling out this questionnaire and sending it in prior to the retreat allowed the facilitator to get a sense of the room (and possible problems) before the meeting started, and also reassured everyone that even if they didn’t get a chance to speak at the meeting, their voices would be heard.

There were a variety of types of interaction

In the morning (when we were fresher), we had unstructured discussion about overarching issues. Later in the day, we had short, informative presentations from various people in the university whose job it was to support us.

The messaging was consistent and positive

As a university professor, I’ve grown accustomed to doom and gloom. Most staff meetings in the past several years start with announcements of what else has been cut from the budget, what new administrative hoops we need to jump through, and what pronouncements are coming from the state to make our lives harder. This was different. Early in the day, we dispensed with the idea that we had to avoid talking about big ideas and new initiatives because we couldn’t afford them. Our facilitator (who happens to be a poet) coined the phrase “Looking for the Loophole to Greatness” to exemplify the attitude that we need to find a way to make the important things happen, not just figure out how to do more with less.

There was followthrough

For the items on our pre-retreat questionnaire that weren’t discussed (by our choice, see above “plickers” voting cards), the facilitator promised to collate our answers and send them in a document for later reading.

There was food

Always a good idea.

So carry on, meeting planners! Look for the Loophole to Greatness! There is hope!


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Board Development, Part 3

As promised, here is my third (and last, for now) post on Board Development. Topic for today: how do we translate the ideas from the first two posts into a plan for our boards? Here are some thoughts.

Someone Must Lead

Michael Kaiser’s book The Art of the Turnaround, lists Ten Rules for organizations hoping to make changes that will lead to organizational success. The first rule: Someone Must Lead. It seems simple, but there are a lot of ramifications for the organization in those three words. In many arts organizations, there can be as many as three leaders: the CEO, the Artistic Director and the board president. Even though a cooperative relationship between the artistic, management and governance functions is essential to a productive working relationship, for the sake of the organization and its relationship to the community, there should be one person who is the face, voice and vision of the organization. That person must be able to communicate the organization’s shared vision internally and externally so that everyone is clear on the ultimate goals.

The vision, once agreed upon, should be constantly and consistently communicated

In marketing, we talk a lot about branding, and delivering on brand. This means that all external-facing materials ideally should be consistent in tone, visual elements, style and language. What is often overlooked is that this brand – the organization’s vision – needs to be constantly communicated internally as well.

When I facilitate strategic planning retreats, I often start the day by asking people to describe their vision for the organization. It’s always amazing to me how different many of these visions are, and how often their visions have little to do with the organization’s mission or what is being communicated on their website or in printed materials (this is often true even if the organization has a written vision statement). How can people vote on policy or programming if each is evaluating their vote based on a different set of criteria? It may seem harmless if one person is working hard to achieve accessibility to communities of color and someone else is concentrating on bringing more money into the organization. It’s the same goal, right? Not if the person talking to the donor is telling a different story than the person making connections with community groups.

Board meetings should be productive, motivating and fun

We want people to leave our programs engaged, inspired and motivated to tell their friends and colleagues how wonderful our organization is. Why can’t we do the same with our board meetings? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone left a board meeting excited about the organization rather than thinking “well, that was two hours I’ll never get back”?

How can board meetings be made more productive and inspirational? Start and end with the vision, talk about things that really matter, and leave board members with significant tasks or takeaways that use their skills and are fun to do. Craft an agenda and stick to it – including listing an end time for the meeting. If you aren’t finished, ask permission to continue, and work harder at honing the agenda to fit within the time allotted.

Add some non-board members to the meeting. Invite an expert to talk about arts trends, or downtown redevelopment, or creative placemaking. Add art – invite an artist to share a work from an upcoming exhibit. Share a YouTube video of a rehearsal.

There are also many ways to significantly reduce the amount of administrivia that takes place in the board meeting. One way I particularly like is to post financial reports, committee reports, and items to be voted on (with pertinent background information) on a password-protected section of the website or send read-aheads so many items can be dismissed with consent votes. Use polls and surveys between meetings to vote on items that don’t require significant discussion. Consider a space on the password-protected site or a closed Facebook group where board members can ask questions or give feedback outside of the meeting.

Get the right people on the board

This is always a challenge – but I can’t help but think that more people would be willing to serve on boards if their time and skills were used wisely and they felt they were making a difference. A good board member knows and understands the organization, shares its vision, has a particular skill or connections to bring to the table, and is enthusiastic about the organization’s future. A good board contains people from many different backgrounds, with many different outlooks and skills, and is able to use them all.

In particular, boards should avoid falling into the trap of tokenism. On my very first arts management gig, the board was very excited that they had managed to lure a “real” accountant onto the board…and he was a person of color! This person lasted less than a year on the board. He was completely unfamiliar with nonprofit accounting, the arts, and the organization, he made six figures in his own world and didn’t understand why the organization willingly made do with so little (and why its employees agreed to work for such low wages). Tokenism, however, is different than representation. If you serve a particular constituency, your board should reflect that constituency, geographically, racially or in other ways. A board of 50+ white people should not be making decisions about serving racial minorities if they don’t have a seat at the table.

And finally, I’ll come full circle and say – yes, you should have someone who knows arts management and the arts industry on your board. You should be nice to that person, and give them donuts. You should listen to what they have to say. If you think it’s wrong, you can tell them so, but if the board work begins and ends with vision, your arts industry professional will respect that more than being ignored.

Trust me.


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Brave New Board, Part 2

We talked last time about some of the reasons not-for-profit arts organization boards underperform and underutilize their resources. So, what do we do about this? Here are some thoughts:

We need to look at the biggest possible picture.

Many boards are micro-focused; that is, they look only at the picture of their organization and measure performance against internal metrics. Did we have more people than last year? Did we meet budget? Did we get good press? But in order for the organization to truly make a difference, the board needs to have a longer and wider view. How does our work fit in our community? In the arts world at large? For whom do we make a difference? How are we realizing our mission in the work we do? What matters most to us? (spoiler alert: what matters most is probably not the color of the flowers on the table decorations)

Having this kind of a vision means structuring board meetings differently. For example, instead of commissioning the Marketing Committee to work on a new graphic identity for the organization and come back with a report, the board might spend time at a meeting having a facilitated discussion on what concepts the organization thinks are most important to express visually. Instead of bemoaning shrinking audiences and wondering how to market harder, the board might invite someone from the local arts council, state arts advocacy organization, or university arts management program to discuss audience participation patterns and learn what other organizations and communities are doing to react to these trends. Instead of approving programs based on quantitative goals (how many people, how much money), the board might spend time development qualitative goals related to the organization’s mission (new audiences served, new art produced).

We need to understand the difference between governance and management

The difference between governance and management is sometimes described as “the board creates policy, the staff carries it out.” The problem with this simplistic definition is that in not-for-profits, especially small ones with few paid staff, board members may well be acting both as governors and as volunteer managers. The chair of the Marketing Committee might well be someone who is volunteering time to create graphic designs and monitor social media. The chair of the Fundraising committee may actually be planning and executing the Holiday Gala. This often means the lines between governance and management get a bit blurry when it comes to the board meetings. At the board meetings, the board should be doing the work of governance (see previous: “big picture”).

I often hear that the goal of the board should be to grow from a “working board” where members are involved in day-to-day operations, into a “policy-making board” which is exclusively concerned with governance. This is a faulty thinking process. The board should always govern. What happens in the board room should always involve governance issues. When a board member is acting as a volunteer staff member, she or he reports to the CEO and many (if not most) of the issues that they would otherwise bring to the board can be dispensed with in the CEO’s report. In other words – the board should not be deciding which folding chairs to order. For those in the back, let me repeat that: the board should not be deciding in a board meeting what kind of folding chairs to order. That is management business.

We need to recruit the right people, and use them appropriately

I have written before about my frustration with boards that recruit me and then don’t use my skills. This never fails to astound me. Not that I am the only person in the world that knows anything about anything, but I do know a little bit about arts management, having written two books on the subject (here and here), taught it for nearly twenty years and spoken on various arts management issues to audiences around the world. I suspect, however, that many of the people who have sat in board rooms with me do not know these things. This, I have come to understand, is not because they are trying to disrespect me, but more simply because board meetings are not set up to be hospitable to the kind of work that I do. Like other board members, I sit in board meetings and vote on how many postcards to order, grit my teeth when the same people ask the same questions about how the budget is organized, and listen to various committee chairs try and recruit volunteers for the events they are in charge of.

I often hear board members get excited about recruiting “business people” to arts boards. Often this means just getting anyone in the corporate world to join the board, regardless of their experience or skills. Someone who works as a teller in a bank will not be able to help with finances, and you can’t assume that a small business owner is automatically a good marketer. A real estate lawyer won’t be much help with contracts. And all of these people may well be totally out of their element when it comes to not-for-profit arts practice.

So instead of thinking of potential board members as representing a particular demographic group or profession, or people who could volunteer a particular skill, boards should recruit based on (you guessed it) the big picture. Who has the passion for the organization, love for the arts, knowledge of what’s needed, and problem-solving skills to get us where we need to go?

As an employer once told me, I don’t need to hire someone who knows how to write a press release. I can teach people how to write a press release. I need to hire someone who knows what a press release can do and how it fits in to the organization’s plans. I need to hire someone who understands how to convince others that our organization is worth supporting.

I’ve got more to say about all this, so I guess there will be a Part 3 next week. Let me know your thoughts.



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Brave New Board

Board development. Does anyone else have a shiver go down their spine when you hear those words?

I’ve been talking and writing about not-for-profit board development for over twenty years. I’ve been working with boards for at least twice that long. And, at this point, I admit to having a bit of a bad-itude about the whole thing. Despite wonderful organizations who are doing excellent work providing resources to boards, despite the amount of time boards spend in development, despite strategic planning session after nominating committee meeting, nothing significant seems to change. Most boards are still a frustrating mix of boring meetings, administrivia, inefficient committee work, lack of communication and, most importantly, ineffective use of the people who were asked to serve on the board by virtue of their skills, resources or connections.

Certainly there are some inherent challenges in the not-for-profit board structure. Although 501(c)(3) organizations are corporations, the board of directors has a very different function than in a for-profit board (often mistakenly called “corporate” board, as if a not-for-profit is not a corporation). The not-for-profit board is often much more hands on than a for-profit board, and the involvement of board members in daily operations increases exponentially in smaller organizations with fewer paid staff and more volunteers. Often, board members serve as volunteer staff members, organizing events, keeping the books, doing the social media. In this atmosphere, it’s hard not to have board meetings devolve into discussions about which florist to use or whether joining Instagram is a good idea.

What should the work of the board be about then? According to Barbara E. Taylor, Richard P. Chait and Thomas P. Holland in their article The New Work of the Nonprofit Board, “board’s contribution is meant to be strategic, the joint product of talented people brought together to apply their knowledge and experience to the major challenges facing the institution.” And yet, not-for-profit boards are often “little more than a collection of high-powered people engaged in low-level activities.”

Why does this happen? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Board members are recruited for their expertise in something the board needs (finance, marketing), but have little knowledge of the business of the arts
  2. Members of the organization don’t understand the difference between management and governance, and default to micro-management during board meetings
  3. There is no clear visionary leadership or a shared vision for the organization
  4. People who are used to running their own organizations can become frustrated with the process required in a not-for-profit board
  5. Either by design or omission, there is a lack of quality communication between board, staff and volunteers

I once worked for an organization that had worked for ten years to raise the money to build a major cultural facility in their community. Once the funds were raised, it became clear that, even with a master plan and multiple feasibility studies, there was not a unified vision for the mature organization. Each board member had faithfully worked to raise money thinking that the organization would offer the programs they thought should be there, but they had never actually discussed the details. As a result, the realization of the plan was stormier than it needed to be, and resulted in some board and staff defections (the good news is, the organization survived its rocky start and is now a thriving facility with a strong impact on its community).

What can we do to make not-for-profit boards more successful, efficient and rewarding? Taylor, Chait and Holland suggest a fundamental shift in our vision of board service. The “new work” of the board focuses on the big picture, centering meetings, board structure and governance around the most important issues to the organization.

The devil is in the details, I know. And I’ve run out of space for this post, so stay tuned. Part Two will be along shortly, as I’ve promised myself that I will actually follow through on blog promises instead of writing only when there are no papers to grade.




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The underbelly of economic impact

A few years ago, I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (or, more accurately, Festival Fringe), an event which started out as an alternative to the more staid Edinburgh International Festival but has since grown to encompass virtually every nook and cranny in the city, with a reported 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues in 2015 (the 2016 Festival ended Monday). We saw dance performances in a conference center, a Swedish comedian in an underground club, a performance of Spring Awakening featuring actual British school children, a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, the groundbreaking Reggio/Glass 1982 film with live music by Phillip Glass Ensemble in a beautiful auditorium,  an avant-garde chanteuse in a temporary venue built just for the festival, a Scottish poet reading Robert Burns at the National Library, and (just because), David Sedaris.


The famous Edinburgh Festival venue, Udderbelly

I loved every minute of the Festival, and of being in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful, lively city and we absolutely adored the combination of history, tradition and innovation on display simultaneously. We marveled at the relative youth of the assembled masses on the Royal Mile – unlike many other kinds of festivals we have attended, the average age of Edinburgh during the festival seemed to average around 25. We thought, here is art done right.

An article by Patrick Collison in today’s Guardian, however, points out that there may be another side to Edinburgh’s success. Collison talks about high prices at restaurants, hotels and pubs, at the same time that performers are barely breaking even. He says, “The business model for the creative industries is broken. For every performer at Edinburgh working for nothing, read musician on Spotify or writer on the net. Providers of content make peanuts, while the controllers of the infrastructure, such as Google, walk away with extraordinary profits.”

We in the arts are fond of justifying support of the arts by pointing out the economic impact of arts and culture to communities. When I teach my students about economic impact studies, I am always careful to point out that “impact” is defined as “benefit to other sectors,” not the arts themselves. Ticket sales are never considered in impact studies. I used to think this was a positive statistic (“look at the benefit, and that’s not even counting ticket sales!”), but after reading this article, I started to think about trickle down impact. Are arts and culture benefiting from the business they bring to their communities, or are they essentially working for nothing while others reap the rewards?

I do know people who have performed at Edinburgh and, knowing the profit potential, have used it more as a showcase, inviting potential presenters as well as adding reviews and information about their success as marketing boosters. But, as Collinson says, let’s think about the indie musicians on Spotify, the community theater, the fine arts festival. What are they getting in return for bringing business to others?

I have long felt that we in the arts industry need to step our economic impact from “the arts create impact therefore we must exist” to “the arts create impact therefore it is imperative that governments and businesses who benefit should be duty-bound to give some of their profits back to the arts.”  Right now, support from government and business operates on somewhat of an honor system; the entities who get it make sure the arts are included. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a more formal system in place? Wouldn’t it be interesting if every community was able to work together to make sure that arts organizations and artists had the means to continue making art and making a living?

How can we do this?

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The benefits of kissing

“Do not defend a music program because it’s good for other things [such as raising test scores and making students smarter]. That’s like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly.” Peter Greene, educator.


Roy Lichtenstein. The Kiss II

This week, I have been writing my syllabus for my fall semester course called Arts in the Community. In it, my students discuss the ways that the arts intersect with various aspects of community life: education, the economy, civic engagement, tourism, social needs and community identity.  This fall we will be spending a lot of time on government involvement in arts and culture because…well, we need to.

When we talk about government support of the arts, we need to talk about the value of the arts to society and the best arguments to make to candidates and elected officials about why the arts are worthy of attention.  I share statistics about how much economic value is returned to the community by the arts, how the arts can be used to beautify distressed areas, bring self-esteem to trouble teens, and “brand” a community. These are wonderful things and they are exciting to talk about, since for many of my undergraduate students, this is completely new information.  Most of them have bought the societal myth that the arts really don’t matter to anyone except those who want to buy tickets to the theater or attend art museums.

But then, we come to arts education, and invariably my students research the reasons for arts in the schools and come up with articles that claim that school music and art are good because they “help raise test scores.”

This is where I have to have the intrinsic vs. instrumental talk.

Let’s forget for a moment that the arts are pretty much the antithesis of everything standardized testing is about.  Let’s ignore all of the research that says that children need to develop both sides of the brain – the left, data driven side and the right, creative side – in order to be able to become properly functioning adults, and that schools have cut the arts for years in order to make room for more left brain academics that, some believe, will make us more “competitive” in the global economy  (the result of 30 years of this mentality may be evident in this year’s presidential election, but I digress).

Let’s just focus on the idea that the arts are only worthy in schools if they help students achieve something that is considered more important than the arts.

The arts community was effectively blindsided in the 90s by the culture wars, and the determination of some elected officials to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts support. One of the excuses they used was that the arts were a “frill” and a “luxury” that we could not afford in difficult economic times.  So, the arts community started working harder to collect data that would support the value of the arts to society.  We had to concentrate on informing people about the instrumental values of the arts – that is, the ways the arts benefit the economy and other aspects of society, because the arts were clearly not holding their own by thinking of them as a lovely thing which made life more beautiful and gave us meaning.

The intrinsic – or inherent – values of the arts are evident to anyone who has experienced them. But along the way of trying to prove that the arts also had instrumental value and could be of enormous economic benefit to communities (which is true, BTW), we lost the argument that art is good for art’s sake alone.

A billion years ago, when I was just starting my career, I heard a wonderful story from a friend who was student teaching in an inner city school in Minneapolis. Following a visit from a professional string quartet to the school, a young woman approached my friend in tears, saying that she wanted to know more about music.  When my friend asked why, she replied, “Because today I think I understood what happiness might feel like.”

Kissing has many instrumental benefits. Health professionals claim that kissing can lower blood pressure, increase serotonin and dopamine levels which create good feelings, and even help prevent cavities. But I think most of us would agree that when we think about kissing, we are not thinking about avoiding a trip to the dentist.

As we begin this school year, let’s remember the goodness, the soul-filling, the beauty, the incredible wonderfulness of the arts – and let’s share it with our elected officials and the candidates for whom we will vote.

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Freelance arts managers? It just might work…


Earlier this summer I posted about my frustration with arts organizations who seem to be ignoring the help of trained arts managers.  One of the individuals I wrote about (who also happens to be my husband) posed an interesting question:

When putting together an artistic team for a stand-alone event, we seek out contract artists, actors, directors, designers, techies, or whatever we need on the artistic side.  Why aren’t there freelance arts managers we can add to the team?


Certainly there are “freelance” arts managers, except we call them consultants, and they are usually people who have a lot of experience in overarching managerial needs, like strategic planning or fundraising.  I also know event planners, who are called in primarily for fundraising events.  But an itinerant arts manager, working show to show like a director or actor?  Not so much.

Part of the reason for this is certainly because administrative matters often can’t be limited  to a single event.  It’s hard to ramp up sponsorship sales from nothing a few months prior to the event and expect any kind of success.  And most good arts managers believe that planning, market research and relationship building go on 24/7/365, so it may go against our grain a bit to just be called in for a single event rather than putting in place the infrastructure that will lead to long term success.

It seems to me that contract arts managers would be useful for smaller organizations or one-off artistic projects, since larger organizations have enough work to be able to hire full time, year-round administrative staff.  But for small budget organizations, it is often board members who act as de facto managers, which takes their focus away from what a board should really be doing – governing the organization.

But if the planning is sound, the research is done ahead of time, and as much care is taken with administration as with planning the artistic aspects, why not just hire someone and say here- you take care of the room scheduling, the travel details, the printing deadlines and the opening night reception?

What are your thoughts? Arts managers, what are the upsides and downsides of working on contract like actors, directors, curators and techies?

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