Good governance includes diversifying boards

by Jini Stolk

The Art of Good Governance: Getting the Basics Right, a workshop I presented on November 17th, was the kick-off to Get on Board, a new project of the Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts to strengthen the arts community by bringing members of arts boards together to learn and share. Forty devoted members of music, dance, theatre and museum boards, large and small, convened at the always festive Spoke Club to hone their governance skills, gain a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and discuss some of the most important ways they can help their organizations thrive. It was lively, lots of fun, and if you missed it, don’t despair – it’s being repeated on December 9th at 5:30 at Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York (right on the Yonge subway line.) You can register here.

The workshop, at an hour and a half, was only long enough to skim over some very important and complex topics, which we may address more deeply in future sessions. But in the meantime I’ve been thinking about one of the interesting questions from the floor, about identifying and cultivating board prospects from diverse backgrounds.

It’s easy to say that boards and staff of arts and nonprofit organizations should better represent the diversity of our communities – but it seems harder to put into action. Look around.  Arts boards tend to replicate themselves, even when we know it’s wrong, limiting, counterproductive, and even somewhat embarrassing in the midst of Toronto’s dynamic multiculturalism.

I found a recent piece in The Globe and Mail on counteracting bias in hiring which I found to be relevant and helpful. It acknowledges that certain types of unconscious bias – such as the tendency to prefer, because you feel more comfortable with, people who are like you; and the tendency to judge people on recent events rather than long-term records, which disadvantages newcomers – are common to human nature, but have to be overcome if you want a diversified workplace (or board.)

Author Erin Anderssen described a controlled experiment in which one group of managers was allowed to choose a snack each day for a month, while another group was asked to choose all 30 snacks for the month. The first group went back to their favourites, over and over again, while the second group chose a variety of snacks. This principle was then applied to overcome unconscious bias. Simply by adopting the process of comparing resumes together, rather than one at a time, managers chose more diverse teams, based on a wide and balanced variety of skills.

This struck me deeply and personally (although I have to say that I still miss my daily sushi from The Lunchbox on Richmond Street, which even I knew was boring.)

Donna Walker Kuhne remains the best possible guide to on how to help people from a diversity of backgrounds build personal connections to the art, and the importance of going to the communities we want to invite into our spaces, listening to what they say, and creating a plan based on what they tell us.

According to Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 the James Irvine Foundation has a wonderful new report, Making Meaningful Connections, by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand, about the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences – and consciously seek to diversify their boards and staff.

This entry was posted in Audience Development, Diversity. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.