On Board

12.13.11 | 3 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, arts administration, board members, conversation starter, ideas, non-profit theatre, rabble rousing, social profit, theatrical ecosystem

A few weeks ago, during the TCG Fall Forum, I saw an interesting Twitter conversation and felt compelled to wade in. Kristoffer Diaz had written:

Disappointed at the lack of response to question about non-financial contributions of potential board members. #tcgff

My response was that every board member should give, though the amount might vary. That started what was for me, anyway, an interesting conversation.

Though we were focused on questions of financial contributions from staff – particularly artistic staff – I think the issue is really a bit larger. I think the underlying issue is about the tension between artist and organization.

I believe every board member of a nonprofit organization should make a financial contribution. Though artists will often say that they contribute their skills and, well, their art, I think that explanation opens a door that’s better left closed. How long before a board member with other applicable skills – say public relations – wants to contribute those in lieu of an outright financial gift?

In such a situation, it would be proper to ask whether that board member is really looking for a board position, or ought to apply for a position on the staff.

That’s also the difficulty of staff serving on the board. The purpose of that service needs to be very clear.

Is it a sense that a board position is prestigious? A way to be seen as an “equal” socially?

Is it a fear of losing control of the vision?

A board of directors has clear duties that are largely fiduciary and financial. The board is entrusted with safeguarding the organization’s mission, its integrity, its connection to the community – and its financial security. Every board member should be a fundraiser. (That doesn’t necessarily mean making direct solicitations. There are many ways board members can help – from signing letters, to bringing friends, to opening doors to connections). As fundraisers, board members ought to be donors first.

That’s not to say that giving and raising money is the whole job description. On a good board, it’s not. Board members ought to have many different skills put to use for the organization. In fact, for board members themselves, this is the joy of the job. The opportunity to contribute – both financially and with talents they already have or can learn as board members – is what drives good people to accept an invitation to serve.

Those talents, however, shouldn’t be allowed to supersede or conflict with professional staff. When those lines get blurry, chaos ensues.

In my experience, artistic staff are often treated either as celebrity guests or… “the staff”. (And yes, that comes with the faintest whiff of condescension). I don’t think either is good for the artist or the organization.

When staff – particularly artistic staff – are part of the board, it’s important that they are accepted as peers. Respected for their talents and knowledge, but on an equal footing. Making a contribution is part of that. It’s important that the artistic leader be seen as sharing in the financial commitment.

The much bigger question is one of control.

Is the artist part of the board to keep an eye on things? To be sure that a group of people who necessarily have less invested artistically don’t drive the organization in a new direction?

Those concerns are valid. Boards have certainly made choices – in leadership, in mission – that have veered from the leading artist’s vision. Better, certainly, to be part of the conversation as a peer than to become a supplicant for your own leadership.

So I think it’s good for the artist to be involved. But it’s especially important that involvement be not as a staff person (hired and fired by the board, after all), but as a full-fledged board member in his or her own right.

You want nothing ambiguous about your position and your voice.

There’s an innate tension between an artist and the organization. It’s creative chaos versus stability, art versus budget. When balanced properly, it’s a dynamo that drives everyone involved to do better. It keeps things zinging. It keeps things existing, too.

Taking a seat on the board means the artist has to balance those forces.

So do serve on your board. But serve as a real board member, not an artistic figurehead. Make a gift.

(By the way, I’ve seen this done – and you can call it either clever or cynical – by insisting on a salary increased enough to cover the size of a significant gift. Just saying…)

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Mary Cahalane

Mary Cahalane is currently development manager at Riverfront Recapture, a Hartford, Connecticut based nonprofit that is reconnecting the area to its riverfront by building beautiful public parks and creating programs, performances and events that are free for all to enjoy. Prior to that, Mary spent many years fundraising for nonprofit theaters. In more than 20 years of fundraising, she’s done a little of everything but admits to being geeky about direct mail. She is most happy when working with individuals – the amazing people who support our organizations. Follow Mary on Twitter at @mcahalane.

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  • I think there’s also a division between the board of a small organization and the board of a larger organization. While all should be making financial contributions, oftentimes with small organizations, you have a working board, which also takes on roles that would fall to staff in larger organizations. The role of the artist on those boards can be even more murky.

  • Tony Adams

    I think that far too much conventional thought confuses a board with a group of donors. Governance does not require deep pockets and the skills you dismiss, such as pr, are actually much more inline with governance than a checkbook is. 

    When governance and financial contributions get blurred boards fail their organization. 

  • Mary Cahalane

    I’m not dismissing those skills at all, Tony. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that staff are the professionals and should be treated as such. Board members aren’t there to tell staff how to do their jobs. They are volunteers, and like other volunteers, if they intend to contribute professional services, those services should be vetted – and that could get quite awkward. Give a well-meaning but less than top-notch Board member the power to start, say, writing press releases – who’s going to critique that? 

    And I’ll continue to insist that while donors need not be Board members, Board members need to be donors – at an amount that represents a real commitment from them. Unless all an organization is looking for are names to stick on letterhead, that is.

    Governance and financial contributions are inextricably linked, because one of the board’s most important jobs is to see to the financial health of the organization. Effective boards put their money in the game.
    Andie brings up a good point about very small organizations – where the Board really is quite grass-roots, and does function as professional staff. Things do indeed get murky there – and while it may be necessary, especially for a young organization – it’s not ideal. I think the board needs that bird’s eye view of things to operate effectively. That’s hard to do when you’re too mired in the day to day details.