I’ve looked at boards from both sides now

by Jini Stolk

I don’t know whether Joni would approve but it’s Canada Day weekend and her beautiful poetry is never far from my mind, at any time.

It’s sometimes easy to focus on the negative side of nonprofit boards, because we hear so frequently about personal clashes and struggles for control – or alternatively, lack of engagement and commitment. Yet boards can be such powerful partners in building an organization and its mission. I was just at an event where the mutual fondness and respect between the CEO and a long-time board member was underlined by the board member’s overwhelming passion for the organization. It was clear that she was finding her board work to be a perfect platform for expressing her personal values and commitment to community; as a result, she was a powerful and articulate ambassador.

Perhaps one of the keys to this kind of success lies right at the beginning, in careful board recruitment. Arts Action Research has long talked about “casting” the board, which provides instant clarity to many artistic and producing/managing directors (who must, of course, be thoroughly involved in the choice of new board members.) Shared values, commitment to the vision, a collaborative work style, contribution to diversity of background and perspective, and the ability to fill a particular role are as important as professional skills and number of contacts.

All of that should be clearly defined and discussed from the first exploratory meeting between the board prospect, board chair/nominating committee member, and managing/artistic director.

There’s a ton of interesting information on board recruitment from organizations like Canada’s Muttart Foundation, the popular database provider Wild Apricot, Help4Nonprofits and many more.

Unless they’re specifically focused on arts boards, these sites are unlikely to emphasize the role of the managing and artistic director in board recruitment, or to say that your search should begin with your audience. Arts organizations really are different in some important ways from other nonprofits.

Looking, now, from another side, a good board rarely makes itself. Skilled and perceptive board management is always behind the best arts boards and that part is definitely up to you, managing and artistic directors. Working together. In beautiful concert with the board president and/or other committed board members who thoroughly “get it” and are not interested in implementing rigid policies, but in providing insight and direction that will protect and sustain the organization’s core purpose.

Some of the best recent writing on boards is coming from Simone Joyaux on the SOFII website. She differentiates in a very interesting way between the board and its board members. The board, she says, does corporate governance, and it does that only when together at meetings; all other contributions are made by board members, the individuals who make up the board. She’s very persuasive and thorough about defining the expectations of board members from the start.

Ultimately, both board management and board leadership are areas where experience and empathy have to come into play.

A professional advice column in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business recently featured an achingly familiar letter from the executive director of a charity: a new board chair and some new members were challenging the ED’s performance and questioning their skills; pushback was being characterized as disrespect; secret meetings were being held. How horrible, but the ED’s response seemed to be equally wrong and unproductive. Some of the advice offered was simply unbelievable: “try swimming, boxing or yoga” to help purge negative feelings and “make your dealings with ornery stakeholders more agreeable and productive.” Yeah, that could work…

Once you’ve finished your workout, it might be a good idea to take a very deep breath, remember that you’re dealing with human relationships, test your responses against what you know from other personal and professional experiences, ask your friends and colleagues for measured advice, implement more open and honest communications, and perhaps pick up a copy of YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs.




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