The trouble with boards

The trouble with boards is that, far too often, there are troubles with boards. What should be a supportive relationship of respect and shared artistic passion can unravel into conflict, lack of trust, and confusion about roles and responsibilities. The company everyone’s there to serve invariably suffers: no organization can thrive when racked by internal dissent.

Conflicts between staff and boards have been a frequent theme in arts organizations over the years but unfortunately I’ve recently had reason, yet again, to think about what makes a good board…or more specifically how to make a good board.

I’ve been blessed with wonderful boards at Creative Trust, but around our table we’ve all spent years in the trenches – serving on boards and working professionally with boards. Experience matters. (I still cringe when I think about some of the ways I treated my first board, years ago.) Working well with a board, and on a board, are learned skills.

Ken Burnett, managing trustee of SOFII – the fantastic treasury of fundraising tips and advice out of England – offers solid advice in How, precisely, do you build a better board? He says that the structure is partly to blame – legislation (in England and  Canada) offers little guidance about the duties or responsibilities of serving on a board. He also says that the potential value and contributions of a really effective board are worth the effort.

“Good boards don’t just happen” according to Burnett, and offers Warren Maxwell’s 21 keys to an effective volunteer board as a quick tip sheet.

First and foremost: “The board serves the organisation, not the organisation serves the board.” Some board members, especially if they come from the corporate world, find it hard to accept that the artistic director and managing director are not their staff – but rather colleagues to be respected and supported as they lead the company forward.

The corollary: Some artistic and managing directors find it hard to confidently affirm that they’re not the board’s staff – but colleagues involved in a shared mission on behalf of the company.

How to solve that kind of problem? Again from Warren Maxwell’s 21 keys:

“Make sure everyone fully understands the different roles of the board and the management “top team”. Management manages. The board governs.” Define everyone’s roles and responsibilities in writing. This is one of the most important leadership responsibilities of a Managing Director. Working to make your board the type of board you need – one that provides good advice, supportive oversight, and reaches out into the community to bring in ideas, volunteers, new partnerships and other resources – is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Finally, if you’re having board troubles, don’t forget to reread your copy of George Thorn and Nello McDaniel’s Leading Arts Boards; it contains the best practical advice you can get.  And if you’re convinced your board should be governing with more soul, take a look through Marjorie Sharpe’s book on that topic.

Jini Stolk

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