The panel was moderated by Roxanne Greenstein of Greenstein Consulting, and featured David Staller, founder and artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group, Maggie Buchwald, a board member at Gingold Theatrical Group, and Andrea Louie, executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance.
If your arts organization is looking for ideas on how to build a more effective, engaged board of directors, here are a few key tips from their discussion.
Seek out diversity. Diversity, in this case, can mean quite a few different things. Diversity in ethnic background is important; if you want your organization to appeal to a wide-ranging audience, you need the perspectives of a broad range of people on your board. Diversity in age is also important; many organizations run into the problem of having boards entirely comprised of older board members. Often this is because older board members tend to be wealthier and therefore have a greater giving capacity, and sometimes this situation can be exacerbated by board members serving unlimited terms. However, it can be very beneficial to maintain a blend of multiple generations on a board of directors.
Including younger board members means that a fresh perspective can be introduced, newer ideas can be embraced, and also that newer, younger audiences can be courted for your performances or exhibits. Finally, diversity in profession is also significant. This is partly because professionals in different fields approach governance in different ways and from different angles, and it is crucial to consider a variety of approaches in running your organization.
In addition, having a variety of professions represented on your board can be beneficial for any aspects of your operations that need assistance. Arts organizations sometimes feature many creative staff members on the programmatic side of their work, but they might need extra help in areas such as legal compliance, finance, marketing, etc. Try putting experts in some of these subject areas on your board.
Ensure the right fit. Arts organizations possess some attributes that are different from other kinds of nonprofits. The service being provided is a creative one, and therefore less straightforward than, say, a soup kitchen or a medical clinic. Arts organizations are usually audience-based, and often interactive and open to interpretation. Performances and exhibits will sometimes receive acclaim and sometimes fall flat; in this setting, it's good to have a board that is comfortable with the risks inherent in the arts field, and also creative enough to be excited by both the artistic output and the risks involved in that output.
Moreover, when recruiting potential board members, get a clear idea of exactly why this person wants to join your board. Your board member should not be someone who simply wants to join any board; the person should have a particular passion for your specific organization. This person also needs to express what he/she is willing and able to offer while serving on the board.
A potential board member should either be able to donate, or be able to solicit donations from their connections. This person should also bring something to the table in terms of governance abilities or professional skill-set, and hopefully be helpful in expanding the organization's audience.
Finally, a board member should be able to make a proper commitment to serve on the board, showing up for meetings and fulfilling all necessary duties. If you meet someone who has a strong interest in your organization but is unable to make the time commitment of joining the board, consider giving that person a role on an advisory committee instead.
Don't take on more than you can handle, size-wise and committee-wise. Legally, you are required to have at least three board members (in New York), but it's all too easy for the size of your board to spiral out of control. Many arts organization leaders recommend keeping the size of one's board to no larger than 10 or 12 people. Otherwise, there can be potential for board activities to become disorganized or contentious, as there can be a surplus of personality clashes and difficulty in getting all board members to a meeting at the same time. There can also be a risk of disengagement for board members if there are too many voices in the room for each one to play an active role.
In a similar vein, as committees form to handle board activities, the number and structure of these committees also need to be kept in check. Committees are very useful for focusing on specific tasks among the board's responsibilities, but if there are too many committees, or board members serve on too many committees at once, problems can arise. Serving on one or two committees allows a board member to focus on a specific area of work and build expertise in that area, but board members are likely to lose that focus and become overextended if they serve on more than a couple of committees simultaneously. Try to keep your committees restricted to the most necessary tasks, without overlapping responsibilities, and you can keep things running effectively.
There are some other great resources out there to help you recruit and refine your arts board. In the Foundation Center library, you can find Michael Kaiser's book Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask, Nancy Roche's The Art of Governance: Boards in the Performing Arts, and Sabrina Klein's The Art of Serving on a Performing Arts Board. You can also find lots of general board advice through Boardsource, which specializes in resources and publications for nonprofit boards. Finally, for more information and a thorough listing of relevant web resources on boards, check our Knowledge Base article, Developing a Nonprofit Board.
- Tracy Kaufman