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What a good board looks like

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It’s axiomatic in the non-profit sector that, more than any other single factor, it’s the quality of the board of directors that determines whether institutions succeed or not. Of course, it’s axiomatic that the way to make money in the market is to buy low and sell high. That doesn’t mean it’s helpful advice.

But, if a good board is key to an orchestra being a good employer for its musicians, those musicians ought to be both concerned and informed about the quality of its board. But, while musicians may have an opinion about the quality of their board, generally it’s an opinion uninformed about anything other than the end result, which means of course that it’s essentially useless in informing the musicians about what they might contribute to building a stronger board.

So what makes a good board? There seems far more art than science to answering that question. But a good place to begin would be two recent blog posts (both of which I find through the email list that Ray discussed yesterday).

The first is on a blog run by the Western States Arts Federation:

Ideally, of course, we seek board members who are passionately committed to the goals and missions of our organizations.  Smart, involved people with deep ties to various segments of the community who will be active in helping to increase the capacity of our organizations, improve their sustainability, and be responsible stewards in the discharge of their fiduciary duties.  We want high profile people, solid business contacts, diverse representation and people eager to right our financial ships.  From the perspective of most staff, the goal is people who will get involved but not micromanage; partners in community outreach, fundraising and as advocates and boosters.  We seek people who have some knowledge of the arts and in particular the ecosystem of the given organization, who understand their role, and who bring something to the table as it were.

But the reality is that there are really two principal criteria that invariably govern our decision to invite someone to join our boards:  1) without meaning to sound specious, the main qualification we look for is really just a warm body - someone who will actually show up at meetings and contribute in some way, someone who will accept the position; and 2) people willing to write a check - the bigger the better.  Less important, but an added bonus is if the candidate has a high profile that we believe will somehow inure to the benefit of our organization.

We don’t, for the most part, vet potential candidates much more than that… Bottom line:  almost never does an arts organization reject a potential board candidate.  We can’t afford to - the pool is too small, the competition too fierce and the options too few.  And, we have so little time to devote to this enterprise.  We take what we can get and give the whole process precious little thought or energy.

Of course, it is difficult to find a slate of candidates clamoring to join the typical arts organization board.  And that is particularly true for those candidates every organization wants - the well heeled, people of color, business and civic leaders, people with cache.

The whole post is definitely worth reading carefully. The second post worth looking at is about specific questions that might be asked of prospective board members - and that those prospective members might ask of the board before joining:

The most important area to explore is specific to what your organization is seeking someone to do (rather than seeking what someone is):

  • One of the reasons we’re talking to you about possibly joining our board is because we think you can help us connect with other public school parents in the African American community. Are these connections you could help us make? (Don’t assume, for instance, that a gay person can connect your organization to the gay community.)

Other questions can help spark conversations:

  • What interests you about our organization? Which aspect of our organization interests you most?
  • What are some of your previous volunteer experiences or leadership roles?
  • What appeals to you about board service as a volunteer activity?
  • If you were to join our board, are there any experiences you’d like to have as a board member or people you’d like to meet?
  • What skills, connections, resources, and expertise do have to offer and are willing to use on behalf of this organization?
  • Do you have any worries about joining the board?
  • Is there anything you think you would need from this organization to make this experience a successful one for you?

If fundraising is an important activity for board members, be sure to raise it now:

  • We’re hoping that if you join our board, you’ll be a member of the fundraising committee. In fact, we hope that you will be able to ask five or ten of your friends for contributions of over $1,000 each. Is this something you think you could do?

Again, the whole post is worth reading carefully.

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