Skeptical Eye on Board Recruitment

I was idly perusing a national arts job site this weekend and came across a board member solicitation for a small theatre in a major city. I thought that was interesting because an organization usually forms a nominating committee and seeks to balance the board in terms of what people might bring to short and long range plans. Though BoardSource counsels against indiscriminate recruitment, I imagined while perhaps inexperienced, they were being a little adventuresome and casting a wide net. They specified a love for theatre and preferred that the members not be theatre professionals.

Then I noticed something that made me a little wary. The cover letters and resumes were all going to the artistic director. It is something of a conflict of interest to have the people responsible for overseeing the finances and operations chosen by the person whose activities will be monitored. Adding to my unease was a check of their organization’s website and 990 filings on Guidestar which revealed of the five board members, three were employees. The artistic director, managing director and production person all sit on the board. This isn’t a new company that just formed and hasn’t had a chance to recruit outside the handful of friends who started the venture. The organization is almost 9 years old and if their claims are true, has garnered enough critical acclaim to attract interest in serving from a decent number of people.

I checked the non-profit corporation laws for the state in which the organization is located and there is no law against such a heavy staff representation on a board. In fact, it appears only California makes such a prohibition. Don’t quote me though. This type of mix is generally advised against. This exchange on gives a sense of some of the factors to weigh.

It initially appeared to me as if the artistic director may be trying to manipulate the selection process in order to surround himself with people who will help raise money and not challenge him. My suspicions ran so high that I was ready to name names in the post and encourage people to stay far away. However, I also considered that maybe someone advised them that their current board set up looks suspicious and they should make an effort to expand board membership if they want to attract more serious funding.

Which is not to say that next year the artistic director won’t have surrounded himself with 10 yes men and women. There were some clues in the 990 and organization website that I pursued with a little Googling thatl makes me wonder how independent the other board members are. The other endeavors with which the board members have been involved makes me skeptical of any suggestion that they didn’t know any better about the composition of their board.

I also have to admit there are many possible variable of which I am not aware that could explain this situation so I am not going to be outing them here. On the other hand, I am quite pleased with how easy it was for me to research the organization, the board members and the specific laws of their state dealing with non-profit boards. It is very encouraging to see the increasing ease with which research can be conducted.

Wait, Didn’t I Just Read This?

Following a link from an entry on the Non-profiteer, I arrived at a site with a report about Non-profit leadership. The summary of the study was so similar to the Building Movement report I cited last month, I initially thought it was the same one mirrored by a partner in that 2004 study.

Come to find out this study, Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out is brand spanking new having just come out this year to report a survey of 5756 members of members of and constituents of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. They also held six focus groups across the country with 55 non-profit staffers who had never been executive directors.

This survey included a much larger sample size than Building Movement’s (though they certainly acknowledge BM) but generally gets the same responses. People feel they need to balance their work and personal lives, they aren’t terribly keen on becoming executive directors, don’t feel they are being mentored or have many professional development opportunities. There are some nice charts graphs and charts on the report home page, (on the Myer Foundation website by the way), that summarize many of the results. Top two of five reasons not to become Executive Director-Don’t want Fundraising responsibilities and Would Have to Sacrifice Work-Life Balance.

There were two results that I hadn’t seen before that I thought were interesting. First is that 10% more people of color were desired to become executive director than whites and people of lower income were wanted to become executive director than people from middle and upper class backgrounds. I should note that a large number of those belonging to the surveyed organizations are associated with social service/justice, health services, environmental protection/justice organizations rather than specifically with the arts.

The second finding I found interesting was that people of color and women felt they needed more education and training time before becoming executive director than white men who tended to feel they were ready now. The surveyors attribute this more to the fact that more men than women and people of color hold senior positions and are being groomed to be executive director in twice the number. They believed women and people of color felt the need to be over-educated and burgeoning with experience in reaction to this.

I should point out the survey also notes that a large portion of their sample were unemployed (11%) or in the first year (43%) of their career. I do feel women and people of color need better representation, but I don’t want my entry to serve as fodder for protest when the numbers are so slanted. I think this mix is fine for reporting aspirations but not necessarily for reporting the reality of a situation. For example, only 4% of those surveyed said they were being groomed to be executive director. However in a 2006 survey of executive directors conducted by the same group, “52% of executive directors reported actively developing one or more people on their staffs to be executive directors someday.” The relative lack of experience in this sample needs to be taken into account when looking at some of these results.

One thing I liked about the Myer Foundation website is the resource page. I will admit to only taking a cursory glance at a few of the blogs and other resources but I liked what I saw. For example, this entry on The Bamboo Project Blog that suggests using a webcam, computer and internet calling services like Skype to turn Baby Boomers retirees into long distance mentors and recording the sessions to create a mentoring library. (The use of which will require the cultivation of learning as a value among non-profit leaders, of course.)

There are also a number of links about retirement planning. The lack of which emerged as a motivating factor on many fronts in both this survey and the one Building Movement did a few years ago.

Tough to Move Up, Tough to Move Out

Came across a link to the results of a listening tour Building Movement did among non-profit leaders back in 2004. The results of the conversations they recorded are very similar to the observations made by Ben Cameron in his address to the Southern Arts Federation this Fall. (Perhaps his speech was based on Building Movement’s study?)

The conversations Building Movement (BM) recorded were mainly among leaders of social service agencies, but as implied, had many common elements. Both noted that the younger generation is interested in balancing their lives rather than devoting so much of themselves to the job as their predecessors have done. Both also discuss the eagerness of the younger generation to participate in substantive decision making and responsibilities.

The BM conversations revealed that members of Generation X feel a great deal of pressure caught between an older generation which isn’t retiring and a younger generation coming into their own looking to become involved and effect change. Whereas the older generation has remained in the same positions for years, the younger ones move often looking for more promising opportunities and often contemplating leaving the field. This causes organizations to have people of a great deal of experience at a certain level and then a sharp decline just below. This can have grave implications for those places that haven’t engaged seriously in succession planning.

Part of the problem, Building Movement notes, is there is no structure currently that provides these leaders with a place to go or even transition to other than retirement. They are healthy enough to continue working but there are no opportunities available to them that would result in a net increase of openings for younger people. Since they did not open a retirement account in their 20s and 30s and with Social Security and health care iffy propositions, retirement may not be a very attractive option.

The lack of mentors to help cultivate the necessarily skills was a big concern. One of the few people who did have a mentor of sorts praised the mentor’s ability and willingness to point out that “new” ideas were actually old ones that have been revisited a number of times which prevented him from trying to reinvent the wheel. Another problem that was mentioned was that the older generation had all these relationships with funders that they weren’t passing on to the younger generation. Because they had not had extensive interactions with long term funders, when the younger leaders took over they were “perceived as less seasoned.” This lack of contact could have severe consequences for many organizations.

The most surprising result of the conversations for me was the reluctance to become executive director many of the younger generation had. I figured that position was the logical goal for those chomping at the bit for their predecessors to retire. This reticence stems back to the desire for a balanced life. The executive director position was seen as thankless and too heavy a burden to shoulder to still have time for one’s family. I don’t know if this sentiment is carried over to the arts. Having family members who have worked for social service non-profits, I can see the truth of this for that sector. Though I imagine they would say the same thing for the performing arts from the perspective of an outsider.

Building Movement has a monograph that integrates the findings of the talking sessions with research to make suggestions for cultivating new leaders and planning for the transition of existing leaders in a healthy manner. I haven’t had a chance to look at it at any length but since I often harp on succession planning, it would be a smart thing for me to cover it here in a future entry.

Wow Neighbor, Your Grass Is So Green!

At a time when arts organizations are merging the executive and artistic director position into one, either as a cost saving measure or because they can’t identify suitable candidates to fill vacant roles,** comes praise of dual leadership as a model for non-profits in general to emulate.

Says the Nonprofiteer:

“…the Nonprofiteer wonders why all nonprofits don’t adopt the bifurcated leadership model common in the arts: an Artistic Director to lead program, a Managing Director to handle resource acquisition and allocation.

Wouldn’t social service agencies operate better with someone at the helm whose expertise was effective service to clients and someone at the rudder whose expertise was squeezing every dime til it shrieked? These are not identical skills–they’re not even complementary–and for charities to insist on combining them into a unitary Executive Director means one part of what they need done will almost inevitably be done badly.”

In all the performing arts organizations for which I have worked, the artistic director has always held a subordinate position to the executive director, if only a half-step below. I can’t really speak with authority about whether two equal leaders is effective. I have worked in a situation with an Executive Director and a subordinate Artistic Director and in situations with an Executive Director and a subordinate artistic and managing director. In the former situation, the two directors worked closely as partners, but it was clear where the final decision resided.

I don’t know if the Non-Profiteer is suggesting two people in equal roles necessarily. I am familiar with the structure of a number of non-profit social service organizations and short of a couple very large entities, I can think of none where there was a programs person with the scope of authority and responsibility comparable to an artistic director. Any change may not require an equitable relationship as much as less a lopsided one between the two areas.

What is interesting to me is that the Nonprofiteer’s comments have made me re-evaluate the dual leadership issue. Deciding to consolidate positions for economic reasons or because the board can’t/doesn’t want to find a replacement suggested problems about the organizations other than the implications of a changed leadership dynamic. It is certainly easy to see how both roles can get the short shrift with satisfaction for neither when they are invested in one person. My thoughts upon reading that the positions were being consolidated were generally that it was too bad for that company rather than the decision was bad for the performing arts world as a whole other than considering it an example of poor decision making. Some times it takes the observation of an outsider to make you reevaluate if something is valuable enough to fight to keep.

(**I wanted to cite the article I recently read supporting this fact in but for the life of me, I can’t find it.)