Cycling With Your Board’s Soul

I don’t think I could have timed it any better…

Last week, Anne Midgette wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the various and confusing roles boards of directors play in the performing arts.

What do boards do? It varies from one company to another. Some performing arts boards serve in a purely advisory function — voting on new hires, for example, sometimes only nominally rubber-stamping choices made by the artistic staff. Other boards, though, have fiduciary responsibility, providing vital financial support to keep the doors open.

[…]

Yet there’s an odd disconnect between the size and financial heft of performing-arts boards and their actual function. Some board members would laugh at the idea that they exercise considerable influence on an organization; some, indeed, resent being viewed as “walking checkbooks,” with the implication that they should pony up and shut up. Although board members often bring considerable business expertise to the table, the attitude often prevails that they don’t really understand art and shouldn’t sully it with mundane business considerations. This leads to a Catch-22, whereby board members are branded as Philistines by harping on issues such as financial viability and ticket sales, but are kept at arms’ length from creative mandates — or from exercising oversight in a meaningful way.

Where the good timing comes in relates to a piece that I tossed in the hopper at ArtsHacker.com that ended up published today, the same day I saw Midgette’s article. (h/t Artsjournal.com).

The ArtsHacker post calls attention a fascinating article from the Non-Profit Quarterly about the cyclical stages a board will go through. I have rarely, if ever, seen the topic discussed. This is regrettable because it brings clarity to a topic that is replete with stereotypes, assumptions and misunderstandings.

According to the article boards tend to go from deferring to the executive staff to becoming more involved in the wake of a crisis to really being engaged with the organization to ceding authority to the executive staff and then becoming more engaged again after a crisis.

Many of the issues Midgette mentions pop up at different points in the cycle. At some points the board sees their role as bringing expertise to the organization. At a different point, the board is mostly about prestige and the members only start thinking about the challenges facing the organization about 30 minutes before the meeting.

At their best, the board is engaged and focused on good governance, working in active partnership with the staff and holding them to account for decisions. At worst, they are relatively disengaged and unfocused on the concerns of the organization.

By and large, I don’t know staffs or boards of directors of non-profits are really aware that this cycle of changing dynamics exists. Those in a bad situation grouse reinforcing established stereotypes and those in a good situation count their blessings and pray it continues until they retire or cycle off the board.  There is no sense that one can actually exert influence over the situation.

By understanding the characteristics of each stage, you can better identify where your organization’s relationship with its board is. Knowing that, you can work on moving things toward a more productive stage or work to prevent a good environment from souring.

Whose Theater Is It Anyway?

I have written about stakeholder revolts where people in the community force non-profit boards to reconstitute themselves, usually in reaction to a planned closing of the organization.   In other places, board are revising their membership in order to better embrace their governance role and diversifying to better reflect community demographics.

It isn’t often that you hear the staff of an organization demand that the board resign and reform. Howard Sherman related the contentious and confusing situation at Theatre Puget Sound in a recent post on the Arts Integrity Initiative.  The theatre staff made an “either you go, or we do” ultimatum in a no-confidence letter to the board.

Unfortunately, this drama is playing out in a very public way according to Sherman because the executive director,

….sent the request for the board’s resignation to a wide cross section of the Seattle community, including the media, leaders of other arts organizations, community philanthropists and more, and even included a pair of internal e-mails by the board.

I second Sherman’s suggestion that the situation isn’t well served by rehashing all the gory details.

…The Stranger is on the case for those who want more information, and for future study by arts management educators and students. However, the bird’s eye view of the contretemps should serve as a reminder for boards and executive and senior leadership of arts organizations to examine their practices and policies, because while the situation is rare, it demonstrates how a rapid cascade of events can put an arts organization at risk.

Given the context of recent stakeholder revolts and other actions, this situation does bear watching for glimpses of larger trends that may be emerging in the non-profit world that may impact the arts.

The very question of who owns a non-profit organization is clear in theory, but muddied by practice. Especially when the founder is closely involved and identified with the organization. (which, to be clear, is not the case here.)

This episode could prove to be a challenge to the concept of organizational ownership depending on how it develops. Many of the deadlines the involved parties set expire at the end of this week, May 5-7, if you want to monitor things as they occur.

Though given the heated passions involved, it may be better to wait and revisit things later, allowing time to provide some insulation.

You Know The Type, They Only Want One Thing–Your Fund Raising Ability

If you ever doubted that executive director positions were all about the fundraising and light on requiring artistic vision, the recent news about the firing of Ft. Worth Opera general director will disabuse you of that notion. It was with some dismay that I read about his firing due to lack of creativity when it came to fund raising.

Now I don’t intend to understate the importance of strong fund raising. I probably would have just scanned the Dallas Morning News piece and moved on with my day. While unfortunate, organization leaders get fired or resign fairly frequently.

Except that as I read on it struck me that Woods wasn’t an idler as general director. Every sentence brought accolades for different accomplishments. He brought the opera to greater prominence, navigated challenges with performance facilities, engaged in some innovative programming that appears to have interested a larger segment of the community, and yes, did a respectable job with fund raising against a shortfall.

Just to be sure the Dallas Morning News writer wasn’t personally biased, I sought other reporting on the firing and they seemed to agree on these basic facts. All in all, he didn’t sound like someone you would want to blithely part ways with.

Certainly, there may be some underlying problems that no one is talking about publicly. The comments by the board in all the articles I came across focus so strongly on their desire to find someone who can handle fund raising and business development as Woods’ replacement that it appears that is about all that matters. Artistic and community relationship building skills seem to be such far seconds that I fear all the accomplishments Woods has been praised for will stagnate and perhaps decline.

The opera seeks to hire a leader to “focus more on business and management … to be creative with the fundraising and development aspect,” he said, adding that, “we just didn’t feel Darren could provide us with that leadership from that aspect.”

[…]

Martinez said Woods has brought the opera “to a point where we felt good artistically.” Now, he said, it’s time to move forward with a new general director who can help shape the company’s future, which includes being a good steward of donors’ money.

That last line made me wonder if the board really did approve of Woods’ artistic choices or if there is something going on that isn’t being spoken of.

Over the history of this blog, (holy crap, is it really going to be 13 years on Friday?), I have often cited studies about how fewer people are interested in taking on executive roles in non-profits. Of those energetic people I know who want to assume leadership positions, few to none have a vision that involves fund raising as their primary role. They get excited by the prospect of making an impact and aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, but job descriptions like this, (and lets be fair, Ft. Worth Opera is far from the only one emphasizing this skillset), don’t really fire their imaginations.

Thank God I Wasn’t Here When It Was Relevant

I have served on my county library system board for over half a year now.

They say public libraries aren’t relevant any more but as the title of the post suggests, if this is what the library is like when it is irrelevant, I am glad I wasn’t around when it was relevant. In my short time on the board, we have had to review or construct policies to address things like harassment of staff by visitors, people monopolizing meeting rooms to run their businesses out of them, wages and benefits, and had to chart a course of action upon learning poor building construction lead to mold issues.

Libraries may not be as important a source of reading material as they have been in the past, but they definitely serve a need in the community. For every problem that crops up, there are 500 people who regularly avail themselves of the facilities, programming and services.  I was entirely unaware of the web of relationships the library had with other community organizations, businesses and social groups.

I have served on a number boards before but this is the first one I have been on that has really engaged me so thoroughly in exercising what I preach in terms of conscientious board governance and fiscal oversight. In addition to addressing programming and policies, there is a lot more money running through a six branch library system than you might imagine.

There was a story a year ago about the financial benefits received by the former president of the Queens (NY) Borough Library system (as well as the alleged liberties he took with the finances.)  It left me wondering what sort of financial controls the borough library system had in place given that we on the board are required to authorize the payment of the bills every month. Though our list is pretty long so I imagine it would be easy to slip some personal expenses in there unnoticed.

I have also tried to bring some of the good practices I have written about to the organization. I stress “tried” because just when I was going to note the professional development budget hadn’t really been used during the year and encourage more staff development, the library director requested that staff be allowed to attend an upcoming conference.

Obviously, like most of us that serve on boards outside our own organization, I have brought other valuable insights and practices to the table.  The experience has certainly improved some of the practices in which we engage in my organization.

The point of this post is mostly to encourage people to serve on other non-profit boards if you already aren’t and to really pay attention to how that responsibility can inform the practices in your own organization.

As I wrote this, I remembered one of my earliest encounters with a perceptual barrier to participation: When I was about 11-13 the librarians encouraged me to start using the adult section of the library.  I had passed by the threshold many times, but I was anxious about entering and being told I didn’t belong there.  I can still connect with the emotions of that memory so I can empathize with people who show up to my performance hall for the first time.

Of course, my other purpose in writing this post is to encourage everyone to support their local library!

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