Engaging your board – some great ideas

by Shana Hillman

General Manager of Kaeja d’Dance and Executive Producer of inDANCE, and former guru of programs at Creative Trust, Shana Hillman reports back on Maytree’s September 22nd Five Good Ideas session on Engaging your Board Effectively, led by Robin Cardozo in conversation with Jehad Aliweiwi, Earl Miller, and Jini Stolk.

Jini has written extensively about boards and a huge part of our work at Creative Trust was around boards – good boards – bad boards. We hosted sessions, workshops, consulted and offered one on one facilitation in some of the roughest cases. Did I really need to attend a lunch and learn about boards put on by the Maytree Foundation?

Short answer – yes.

Something that has stuck with me since my time as the Program Manager at Creative Trust came from one of our own board members and a trailblazer in the Arts Management game, Mallory Gilbert. At some point I must have been bellyaching that a member had told me they didn’t need to come to one of our professional development sessions because “he already knew everything about Board Governance”. Mallory looked at me, eyebrow raised, and said “I’ve been doing this for 32 years and I can always learn something new.”

Now I know exactly how it goes – there is a grant report to write – a season brochure that’s late to the printer – toilet paper to buy for the office bathrooms (does the glamour never stop?) and about a hundred other day-to-day chores that you need to do as part of a small staff. Making time for 3 hours out of your day to travel to and sit through a lunch and learn is hard and it is so tempting to bail out at the last minute.

I’m so glad I made the time. I left last Monday’s session filled with new ideas, reminded of some best practices I’ve grown lazy around and energized for our next board meeting.

Props have to go to the excellent format of the Five Good Ideas series, now in it’s 5th year. I love that it is broken down into small manageable chunks – five great nuggets – perfect for our overloaded and stressed out brains with time for discussion with our peers, questions and answers and a free sandwich (I’m a sucker for a sandwich).

Five Good Ideas on Engaging your Board effectively

  1. Inspired Recruitment
  2. Thoughtful Orientation
  3. Managed Risk
  4. Meaningful Conversation
  5. Getting out and having fun!

The takeaways from this session were particularly applicable to my current work. We recently had two longtime members retire and three newbies join the team so the idea of a thoughtful orientation had special resonance for me. We’ve got the inspired recruitment covered – our entire board is made up of wonderfully passionate people who are so dedicated to our work – but I realize now that how we orientate new people to the company will set the tone of their entire board career with the organization.

It’s about more than a binder and can’t be done in a single coffee meeting. If you have one consider a facility tour, if you don’t perhaps invite them into the studio to watch part of a rehearsal. At one of my former companies during intensive creation periods every Friday afternoon the company would do a quick run through for staff and board members to see what they’d been up to all week. It was helpful for the marketing team of course but also gave board members a connection to what they desired most – access to the artists – and only deepened their commitment to the cause.

Also helpful to me as a fairly new GM was the idea of meaningful conversation. I found myself nodding along as Robin Cordozo talked about his early days at the United Way creating elaborate financial presentations for his board meetings. I just about killed myself preparing for my first GM’s report at Kaeja d’Dance. I think I used all

the colour ink in the printer printing my rainbow spreadsheets and preparing my verbal report that rivaled a five year buiness plan. Nobody wants to be talked at for an hour and what a waste of six intelligent thoughtful people’s time. How much better served would I have been if I’d engaged the board in a bigger conversation of substance?

I did have to laugh at the last good idea – getting out and having fun! As arts organizations there never seems to be a shortage of fun – opening night parties, receptions, closing night parties. At the same time the idea of taking staff and board outside of their respective comfort zones for a retreat is something I’m considering – I’m already looking forward to our board retreat this January.

Big thanks to Maytree, Robin, Jini, Earl and Jehad for the wonderful session. I’m already looking forward to the next one!


About Five Good Ideas:

Five Good Ideas is a lunch-and-learn program where industry or issue experts discuss powerful yet practical ideas on key management issues facing non-profit organizations. The sessions are most useful for management staff and board members at small and mid-sized non-profits.

Each expert presents five practical ideas and explores with the audience how these ideas can be translated into action. During each session, participants organize into small groups and continue the discussion to generate the best and most relevant of all ideas.










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