Page 1



Leading Arts Boards THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2005

George Thorn, Co-Director of Arts Action Research and veteran arts professional, joined PMP and approximately forty representatives of the music community for a seminar on Leading Arts Boards. The seminar took place in Field Auditorium of Settlement Music School, where Thorn jokingly assigned himself to use as many colored markers as possible to represent myths and realities of developing and relating to boards. His introduction painted a straightforward picture: “The need for fundraising and connections to community continue to increase. The professional and personal lives of our current and prospective board members have become very complex. The traditional models and theories about the role and structure of a board are no longer appropriate. The convergence of these three factors is causing stress in organizations and ineffective board functioning as well as straining relationships between staff and board. At a time when organizations need greater participation by our community partners, we are often getting less.” Thorn’s seminar sought to “present new ways of thinking, and new strategies to create the roles, functions, expectations and structures of a board, and also a board’s relationship with professional leadership in today’s reality.” While stressing that he wasn’t putting forth a new model—he doesn’t believe in models—Thorn rendered an organization and its support network as a series of concentric circles. In one hemisphere of these circles, Thorn indicated the center, core, connected, and need-specific layers of participants in the “producing, presenting, curatorial and programmatic function of an organization.” At the center lies the professional leadership of the organization, and beyond that are the core workers, whether a company of artists or additional staff. Specifically, he said, “There is usually a contractual relationship but always an aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual relationship” to the core. The next layer, the “connected” layer, signifies individuals who have an ongoing connection to an organization, but whose connection is limited or specialized in some way. The outermost layer of this hemisphere, the “need-specific” layer, comprises those who serve “special functions that the organization generally doesn’t require....It is a temporary relationship.” These four layers form a fairly intuitive stratification of an organization’s programmatic operations. The twist, however, is that Thorn believes that the board of an organization should be able to function in roughly this same way. He offered the more traditional, “institutional model” of organizational structure: a hierarchical body with the board at its head, followed by the executive committee, then branching committees and volunteers. Somewhere below stands the professional leadership with its artistic and administrative branches. The major problem with this model, which underlies many of the assumptions of board operations, puts the artistic leadership and culture of an organization in a subordinate, conflicted relationship with the board. Thorn ascribed much internal organizational stress to this conflict of cultures. If, he claimed, it’s possible to mirror the collaborative and concentric structure of the programmatic hemisphere in the hemisphere of the board and voluntary support, resources can be derived for one’s organization more effectively. One of Thorn’s more dramatic points was to revise the strategy of filling board positions with individuals who can provide needed services for an organization. Many people, Thorn suggested, are willing to provide voluntary or discounted service, and will accept a form of thanks other than being placed on a board. In fact, Thorn has found that forming a “Resource Council” of these individuals—a council that never meets, mind you—can be a

PMP 30

method of recognizing and organizing support without involving as many of these individuals in the fundraising and monitoring activities of the board. The most active board members, Thorn asserted, will be those who, like the programmatic core, feel a deep affinity for and identity with the organization. There may be a number of board members who will not agree to the same level of engagement, and, rather than continuously struggling with them for more support, it is possible to recognize them as participating in that “connected” layer of support, and to derive more appropriate assistance by making limited or specific requests. “Every board member must participate in [fundraising] activities,” Thorn affirmed, and potential board members must be cultivated properly, knowing what they will be asked to do as a member of an organization’s board from the beginning. Without that clarity, there is bound to be struggle between the board and staff members. Thorn also advocated limiting committees and meeting times to a minimum. One simple tactic is to have board members review reports before they come to a meeting and come prepared for discussion. His underlying philosophy in these matters is “Form follows function,” and the more realistically an organization’s central leadership can approach its board members and larger community of support, capitalizing on specific strengths and casting aside as many myths and preconceptions as possible, the more smoothly the organization’s operations will take place.

Excerpt From Leading Arts Boards: An Arts Professional’s Guide BY NELLO MCDANIEL AND GEORGE THORN

It is amazing how much the world has changed—socially, politically, economically, technologically—and how the rate of change steadily increases. In contrast, note how little the approach, concept, structures and systems of the not-for-profit arts have changed in 40 years. Most community leaders and funders continue to believe in the institutional model, the conventional wisdom and the power of theories and myths described below...We believe these should never ever again be a singular model, but a great range of examples of appropriate relationships, structures and functions of boards and volunteers.... THEORY #2 The board determines the vision, mission and planning and then hires staff to implement its direction. REALITY The professional leadership must be at the center of the organization. An arts organization is successful because of the vision, passion, investment and commitment of its professional leadership. Still, the professional staff cannot meet the goals of the organization alone; they need a great deal of help from their community collaborators. THEORY #4 Whatever expertise or service the organization needs from a community member, he must be recruited to be on the board. We need our lawyer, our accountant, our marketer, our realtor, our printer, our photographer, our caterer, etc. REALITY The result of this is the slot board. Is it any wonder that so many arts organizations end up with boards a mile wide and an inch deep? None of the expertise or service providers need to be on the board. When an organization needs a particular service, it should find someone to provide it. THEORY #7 The traditional not-for-profit model must be seen as a three-legged stool: board, artistic, and administrative. REALITY A three-headed monster is more like it. This structure encourages three separate and distinct cultures, which often isolates the artists and the artistic process from the total life of the organization. This separation is unhealthy for the organization and its staff. Everyone—artists, managers and boards—must work creatively, positively, strategically and collaboratively to solve problems and meet the goals of the organization. Separate cultures within the organization will tend to be competitive and may eventually become negative energy centers.

MYTH #5 Arts professionals are only skilled at making art, not business, so they need help running their organizations. REALITY This stereotype, holding that arts leaders are not trained and experienced professionals, is among the most stubborn myths in our society. It extends to the belief that arts professionals do not know how to plan, manage money, run a business or administer an organization. In fact, arts professionals run very good businesses in spite of the fact that their organizations are undercapitalized, lack resources and often basic infrastructure. Still, arts professionals create an extraordinary amount of art and programming. It is amazing how much work they create and connect to audiences with so few resources. Arts organizations aren’t badly managed; they are under-financed. WWW.ARTSACTION.COM

MYTH #3 The organization should identify a really important person out in the community, find a way to trick him into joining the board, hope he understands the very nature of what the organization does and needs, and then hope he will be transformed and go out and raise money. REALITY Everyone coming onto a board must deeply understand, and be personally connected to, the organization’s mission and work, or they will not be effective.

PMP 31