The making of an effective arts board

It's no easy task in a non-profit world of growing financial pressure. Two essentials: A board must partner with staff, and everyone needs to keep focus on furthering the community mission.
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It's no easy task in a non-profit world of growing financial pressure. Two essentials: A board must partner with staff, and everyone needs to keep focus on furthering the community mission.

ACT, Intiman, and the Children's Theatre have recently named new managing directors, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre has just named an acting artistic director. It's a time of unusual turnover in Seattle theaters, partly reflecting financial pressures and partly a result of some long tenures naturally coming to an end.

Much is at stake. The people in these positions, whether short term or long term, will be part of shaping the face of local and sometimes national theater. Their work affects what we see on stage and when we see it, how much we see and how well it's done. Their work affects the price of what we see and the convenience of seeing it and the atmosphere of the theatres we visit. Any of us who love theatre should want exceptional people in these roles.

So how do we make exceptional arts leaders? They are forged by a combination of what they bring to the table and what their institution brings. One key factor is the quality of the organization's board. When the hiring is complete, the board must assume responsibility for ensuring that the new leader is able to meet the expectations that led to his or her selection. In the hiring process, the board presumably evaluates the readiness of the candidate for the challenges at hand; equally important, the board needs to examine its own readiness for the challenges and expectations of new leadership and a new partnership.

I've learned, in the course of almost 30 years as the managing or executive director of four different cultural organizations, how inseparable my own effectiveness has been from the effectiveness of the board for whom I worked. Like water, board and staff leadership will seek the lowest level; likewise, there are no exceptional staff leaders without exceptional board leaders. Boards that demand a great deal of themselves, will demand (and get) a great deal from their staff. I have seen myself and my staff driven to extraordinary excellence by vision and spirit within the board and also seen us reduced to frustrating mediocrity by myopia and caution within the board. The difference is not the difference in individual trustees. It is the difference in the collective effectiveness of those trustees.

Almost all the trustees that I've encountered have been accomplished, motivated, well intentioned, and highly intelligent. These are not mediocre individuals. So what makes the difference between the strong boards and the weak board? It is the quality of the partnership between the board president, the managing director (charged with the business side), and the artistic director , and this team's respective capacity to drive the trustees, the staff, and the artists toward common goals.

This non profit structure is not an easy one, which is one reason it often misfires. For starters, the volunteer board is composed of people who are accomplished professionals from every field — except the one for which they are assuming responsibility. That is not going to work well without strong leadership, which must come mostly from the staff — the people who really do know the profession. This is awkward in many ways, not the least of which is a kind of inversion of social status. Yet an effective board has to come to understand that a strong operation is built by the staff leaders, not by the board. To be sure, once a year, the managing and artistic directors should be evaluated as employees of the board. The rest of the year they are partners with the board in building a strong institution.

An effective board also has other roles, beyond improving the operations of the theatre. Building relationships and credibility in the community. Triggering support from that community. Hewing to mission, and clarifying short and long range goals. Again, the board and staff leadership have to work in partnership to build and earn that community and financial support.

Seattle theaters now all face a tough economic climate and intensified competition for entertainment dollars. Times like these put enormous stress on the board-staff relationship. The staff always thinks the trustees should provide more resources, and the trustees always think the staff should do more with less. Neither is a realistic expectation of the other. Yet downsizing and fundraising are both essential to strengthening the organization in an economic downturn, and they must be done together. A board that simply directs the staff downsize to an "affordable" level may be exercising its authority but it is abdicating its responsibility to strengthen the theatre. Downsizing is "easy." Strengthening the theatre while doing so is not. The board has to take responsibility for ensuring that decisions strengthen the theatre in the long run.

Meanwhile, there has been an unfortunate impact on non profit boards from the tightened board oversight roles mandated by Sarbanes Oxley. True, only a few innocuous provisions apply. But financial oversight has become such a priority that it sometimes trumps furtherance of mission as the key focus of the board. Oversight is of course important, but it alone is a non-productive activity that propels nothing forward. It can blind a board to its own need for self reflection and assessment. Uncorrected board weakness in turn will define the parameters for the whole organization. Such a board will unknowingly calibrate the institutional aspirations to the limitations of the board, rather than calibrating the institution to the vision of artists and interests of the community.

"Furtherance of mission" is the key to everything. The legal responsibility of the volunteer board is to ensure that resources are directed to the mission that earned the tax-exempt status. The job is to protect the mission. The Board is drawn from the community, not from the theater, because its responsibility is to the community. Financial oversight, fundraising, donating, and hiring staff leadership are all important roles of trustees. But none can be carried out effectively if furthering the purpose of the organization isn't kept front and center.

Serving the community means that the best boards operate like a huge deep dish antenna, facing out to the community — receiving information about the community they serve and transmitting information about the theater they represent. How the board deals with what it hears and how the board transmits what it knows determines the reach, scope, vision, and potential of the organization. If that deep dish turns inward on the organization, the result can kill any forward momentum. And the community is the victim.

Over the years, I've developed some identifiable traits of the boards that inspire the best work of staff and build great organizations for their communities.

  • Trustees understand the mission; know their goals and keep their eyes on the prize.
  • Collectively and individually, trustees work with the staff as partners.
  • Individual trustees assume personal responsibility for collective decisions.
  • Board and staff discussions are open, sometimes heated, but always directed toward a unified position.
  • Ideas are both welcomed and scrutinized, in an effort to be both creative and effective in addressing problems.
  • Obstacles and disappointments become triggers for creative problem solving and renewed focus on priorities.
  • Problems are analyzed with some depth before solutions are discussed.
  • The board garners valuable information from the community and drives the organization to strengthen itself with that information.
  • The board constantly evaluates its own success, evaluates the suitability of its own composition to the challenges at hand, and addresses its weakness.
  • The trustees expect themselves and the staff to enjoy the process of building a great theater for a great community.

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