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.





About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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6 Responses to Brave New Board

  1. Susan Garot says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Very enlightening, and thanks for sharing the link to the HBR article. I will share it with my board.

  2. assuming that you could get board members to do the thing, what do you think about a crash course for arts board members who aren’t versed in the idiosyncrasies of the arts and education worlds and the ways that they intersect? kind of an everything from how curation works, what art classes look like, what are the sorts of educational standards that–while the org isn’t necessarily beholden to be it’s not a school–should still be kept in mind, how pedagogy exists in art classes (because, ya know, a well-structured, well-taught, interesting class will ensure people of all ages return, yeah?), how to conceptualize interesting shows, and even what the baseline differences in studio and gallery spaces that artists working in different mediums need

    er, that may be a lot of thought?

  3. I always think that things like this are a good idea – but you’re right, sometimes it’s hard to get board members to do it. I think they feel that they are spending enough time in meetings, but as I said above, much of that meeting time is spent doing dumb stuff, and learning things like this would be so much more valuable.

  4. Barbara Harkins says:

    Hi Ellen – I’m just getting around to reading these posts. I think board work and the possibilities for change throughout NFP boards are fascinating.

    One I was associated with took 15-30 minutes every meeting to do ‘board development’ – share articles on effective board work, delve into the arts practice (dance, in this case), take a nostalgiac look back at the company, and/or begin the exploration of tuning up mission/vision/values in a high level (i.e., not mundane) way. It was a great board. We had a great board leader, though, which I’m sure you’ll touch on in your next two posts (I’ve peeked ahead!)

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