Asking Boards What They Think Of Themselves

A few arts organizations in my community are partnering to conduct an arts listening tour where we will go out into the community and try to get a sense of what the barriers to participation for different groups might be. We met with the outside facilitator today so she could get a sense of what we wanted to do and help us avoid inhibiting honest discussion.

She mentioned that one of her major focuses is non-profit boards and that research on board effectiveness is almost exclusively conducted by talking to the executive officer of the organization rather than the board members. She said if you asked the boards themselves they would probably have a different view about their effectiveness.

She told us this to emphasize the importance of including the people we wanted to know about as listening tour participants rather than asking other groups why they thought people in those demographics weren’t engaged. The need to involve those who were not already engaged in our activities has been at the forefront of our mind since we started planning this project.

Later in the day the facilitator’s anecdote came back to me and lead to me to wonder, how many executive officers ask their board to reflect on their effectiveness. How many boards ask it of themselves? How many discuss the differences and similarities between the directors’ and executive officer’s perceptions?

I know this gets into uncomfortable territory. I actually stumbled into it recently when I mentioned my perception of my board’s decision making process to the board president, citing specific examples. To her credit she thanked me for reflecting something they were too close to see and brought it up at a board meeting.

Not all issues are that easily addressed and not all board dynamics allow for these sort of discussions. Perhaps the first step is to work on changing the dynamics.

If it is true that most of the research about the actions, attitudes and effectiveness of boards of directors is derived from what the organizations’ executive officers say about them, maybe the boards have been unfairly maligned and should be given an opportunity to respond.

(And I know there are a lot of people reading this thinking, no they haven’t and no they shouldn’t, but try to get past that.)

Today being the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, it is appropriate to think about all of our relationships that seem antagonistic to some degree and make us feel uneasy and fearful about acting to resolve. Not all movements need to be large and public impacting thousands. Sometimes they can be small, private and personal impacting a handful.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment