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.



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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4 Responses to Brave New Board, Part 2

  1. jeanwentz says:

    This is good stuff! And much of it is applicable to church boards as well (my slant of interest here). I’d love to hear your thoughts on board burn-out…the opposite of “they invited me to be on this board; why don’t they use me to my fullest potential?” More of “the board IS the staff and is doing all the work and can’t get volunteers.”

    • This is another huge issue and I agree that it’s very prevalent in churches. Much of what I have written here about reimagining tasks and meetings applies to volunteer management as well. In my experience, boards plan a bunch of stuff assuming they will be able to get volunteers to help but the potential volunteers never had a chance to weigh in on the activities. It’s more like, “Hey folks, we’re going to have a big church picnic! Yay fun – but now we need x people to set up, x people to bring food, x people to clean up…” Like arts organizations, people don’t go to church to be cajoled into doing busy work, they come to church to be inspired. First, the board needs to do more resource planning. How many activities do we have planned, how many volunteers do these activities need, how many members do we have? Do the math. Then, rather than planning in a vacuum, what about going to the membership and saying, we have a choice between these three activities but we think we can only support two of them. Which would you rather volunteer for?

  2. Susan Garot says:

    Ellen, would you be willing to come and present this to my board sometime? I’m loving these blogs and loved the HBR article you referenced in your previous post.

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