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.


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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