Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

What Does It Mean To Have Influence

I saw an article containing an interview with choreographer Robert Moses that basically opens with Moses saying the conversations occurring regarding equity are addressing the wrong questions.

How to increase equity? “Ask different questions,” is the reply from Moses. Or preferably, don’t ask the same tiresome questions.

“The notion of change is sophomoric,” Moses says. “The idea is to give people honest opportunity to be part of whatever they’re intending to be a part of. The questions get tiresome because they come from the same place. It’s not interesting if it doesn’t have anything to do with what needs to happen.”

Moses poses a question of his own: “Should we have more representation? No, we should have more influence. More actual ability to exercise that influence and power. All those things will be happening for the better of everyone,” he says, heavily emphasizing the “everyone” in his declaration. “It has to be in as many hands as possible… It’s about talk that’s useful. An organization that powers those things is what I care about. The conversations then can take place that move us all. We’re not spinning our wheels and using portions of a cultural experience to affix something to the moment.

I’m not exactly sure I completely understand what he means. Which is good I guess, because if I thought I knew what he meant, I might stop considering the larger implications of the statement.

If influence and power in as many hands as possible isn’t more representation, what is it? It is obvious that representation can be employed superficially, but so too can pursuing talk and conversations that is useful. Often both can feel like progress when they are just the appearance of progress. So isn’t productive work in representation and/or conversation valuable?

The distinguishing element that sticks out to me is the mention of “…using portions of a cultural experience to affix something to the moment.” That seems to reproach focusing on creating standards based on conditions at a specific time versus embracing broader, long term goals. For example, the idea that you are done when the composition of your board reflects the demographics of the community versus the broader goal of seeking to create an environment where power and influence are shared in the broadest terms possible.

Anyone else want to share their thoughts?

What Do You Perceive As Biggest Impediment to Equity Efforts?

Advisory Board for the Arts had sent out a survey on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEI&A) efforts that non-profit organizations were undertaking. They released the results in infographic form this week.

Keeping in mind that the respondents were self-selected so there wasn’t a lot of rigor behind the process, the results are still an interesting preliminary view of what organizations perceive is going on with their efforts.

I was particularly interested in the pressures and challenges section where respondents indicated there was a lot of pressure to do more in relation to DEI&A across a number of internal and external constituencies. The biggest perceived source of pressure to do less is among board members and individual donors. Still there wasn’t perceived pressure either way from unions, donors, corporate sponsors, and audience members.

This all makes me yearn for a more complete study of the question. My suspicion is that groups who were already very interested in implementing DEI&A chose to answer the survey and so they were either inclined to view their efforts favorably or their constituencies were aligned toward DEI&A efforts to begin with.

However, it would be great if these results were close to reality because that would mean the impediment to change couldn’t necessarily be blamed on external groups. They are shown as largely indifferent in this area. Even board members who were seen as most in opposition to DEI&A efforts were more likely to be for or indifferent to them rather than against.

In terms of challenges and hurdles, the survey found that developing an authentic, rather than performative, stance and creating meaningful metrics to hold the organizational accountable were among the top concerns people had.

Stuff to ponder so take a look.

Why Are You Asking Me On Board?

A piece I wrote on diversity efforts in board recruitment appeared on ArtsHacker last week. I primarily drew the content from a piece Jim Taylor, BoardSource’s vice president of leadership initiatives and education, wrote about his experiences being recruited for board membership.

He said his primary litmus test when being recruited to join a board is to ask what value he would bring to the board. He says this is a question anyone being recruited to join a board should ask. However, if the recruiter can’t provide a satisfactory answer that emphasizes his expertise or experience over his racial background, Taylor says he considers the real conversation is finished.

I quote the following in the ArtsHacker post:

Taylor observes that when people of color achieve something, it is often assumed a bar had been lowered to allow them to accomplish it. “So when a White board member recruits me and effectively diminishes the totality of my assets and qualifications to one aspect of my identity – my race–… I am still being seen as “less than”.

I go on to note that white board members have often been recruited based on their ability to garner financial support or exert influence on behalf of the organization rather than expertise they may bring to the table and no one questions their qualifications, mostly because their identity is viewed as the default norm.

My organization recruited new board members a few months back and I made an effort to specify what elements of people’s experience and background we felt was beneficial to the organization. I don’t believe I had read Taylor’s piece at that time.

However, in on a recent grant application where we were asked to discuss how we were diversifying our board, I did burn through a good portion of the precious character limit enumerating the value each of our new board members brought with them, mindful of Taylor’s article and wanting to make a small contribution toward mainstreaming this thinking.

As governance and equity become increasingly important considerations for non-profit boards, what someone brings is likewise a significant question all parties should be asking.

 

Many Lens of Board Recruitment

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