Our unique leadership model

by Jini Stolk

Half way through a NPQ webinar on Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability (which will be very helpful in planning our November 27th Creative Champions workshop on Succession Planning) it hit me. The performing arts has for years been using a shared or co-leadership model that the wider non-profit community has recently begun to explore as a progressive alternative to top down hierarchical leadership.

The performing arts is one of the only (perhaps the only? I can’t think of another) sector that commonly appoints two people with distinct and separate skills and day to day responsibilities to lead their organizations. Our Managing and Artistic Directors each report to the board and are jointly responsible for the overall success of the organization.

How do they do that? With very little help from either the board (which rarely tries to define how the relationship works when they hire) or any established researchable best practices. It’s essentially left to us to build an understanding that’s productive and mutually satisfying (and that the board is happy with.) I wish our community were more inclined to analyze and write about how we co-lead – and also collaborate, create, etc. – because there are a large number of people in the non-profit, for profit and academic worlds who would be hugely interested.

Wendy Reid who had a storied career in arts management including at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is now on the faculty of HEC Montreal’s Department of Management, where she studies and writes on dual leadership in the arts. This piece contrasts traditional concepts of leadership with the complex challenges of a shared leadership structure.

Of course success in shared leadership is all about the relationship, and rests on goodwill and open discussion. I wonder if this Definition of the Separate and Mutual Roles and Responsibilities of Board and Staff from Creative Trust  could also be useful to GMs and ADs who are talking through how to define their roles and responsibilities.

Certainly the Artistic Director has to be an active partner in leading the board and in succession planning. It rarely turns out well when the AD leaves board matters entirely to the GM.

Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley, two clearly brilliant young women living in different countries and co-leading the international non-profit FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, have written the most helpful piece I’ve seen on the topic.  Their five good ideas (understanding your unique contributions, accepting your limitations, and building a collective leadership style; getting clear on what decisions you share and which you do not; looking after each other – prioritizing your collective well-being; the importance of flexibility, boldness and documentation; and being comfortable with asking for help, because collective knowledge, power, and celebration are everything!) are as good as it gets.

More on this topic

The webinar materials from Nonprofit Quarterly are well worth reading.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about the importance of collaborative relationships in developing business partnerships in Harvard Business Review: Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances 


Posted in Organizational Development | Leave a comment

Boards adding value

by Jini Stolk

I had a conversation this morning with a long-time arts board member who feels that now, just as when he first started, most board members don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing. He personally took the time to mentor new board members and his board developed, over time, a detailed description of board responsibilities. But there’s still no universal template, no rule book, no easy answers.

Here’s one straightforward idea: board members are supposed to add value to the organization; their most important role is to take the long view – asking “what could be” before asking “what if” if things go wrong. There should be a complementary and collaborative leadership relationship between the board and CEO – each making different decisions, pulling different levers, but sharing the objective of creating the greatest possible value for the company. The board’s job, then, is to define culture, strategize, communicate vision, appoint the CEO, and inspire them.

This piece says that boards of community-based nonprofits should be concerned not primarily with financial oversight and accountability but with the ongoing sustainability of their organizations. Boards have to understand and engage with the “interdependent mix of programs and fundraising activities that work together to achieve a set of impacts and financial results…(so they can) meaningfully assist with the dogged pursuit of sustainability in which so many of their executives find themselves.” There’s no wiggle room here: board work includes resource development.

Another way to think about it is to differentiate between a board’s steering vs. rowing work.

In 2005 the charitable sector in the UK actually developed a Code of Governance, now being revised to place greater emphasis on the responsibility of trustees “to excel in their role and provide strong leadership.” Seventy-four percent of charity chief executives say their groups use the code, which helps them “meet changing expectations of donors, public sector clients, and those they serve.”

Among the changes currently being considered are:

  • Guidelines that help boards promote prudence, but also understand that being risk averse is itself a risk
  • Regularly assessing whether or not the work of the charity is still relevant in a changing world
  • Increased expectations about board composition, ethical standards, and terms of office

I’m going to quote extensively from a post by Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 on What a board is for because I think she’s got it right.

“For my first couple years as a nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary…I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes…I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.

All that changed when we started the (large new) Abbott Square (capital) project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn’t need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.

And so I turned to my board…Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way. The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. If they hadn’t been there…I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points.

This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.”

So be it.



Posted in Board & Governance | Leave a comment

How and why people attend

by Jini Stolk

The more you know about your audiences and why they attend, the more successful you’ll be at filling your house. That’s the theory.

Not everyone is as immersed in research as I am. And that’s okay.

The National Endowment for the Arts research paper When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance says that barriers to attendance include time, difficulty in getting to the venue, and cost. the University of Chicago’s literature review on The Changing Landscape of Arts Participation concludes that cultural participation can no longer be understood as attendance alone: people are increasingly expressing themselves artistically, live and online. Even when time and cost are not a factor, people with low incomes and less education still don’t come out to arts events as much as anticipated, according to this piece. (Don’t they feel welcome? Are they not interested? Follow-up studies to come.) Free admission days don’t actually attract a lot of underserved or low-income attendees it seems, because we tend to target the people who are already coming with information about affordable admission days.

The plenaries and workshops scheduled at the Arts Reach Conference coming to Toronto in June are focused on data, research, and measurement. Yet Alan Brown’s study of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Audience Research Collaborative found that this program was not fully successful in moving performing arts companies to a more research-based approach to audience development and engagement. Data-driven decision making often hit the rocks of staff transitions, lack of capacity or prioritization of the project, silos between departments, especially between marketing and programming, and lack of ownership or buy-in.

I’m really not against using audience data to refine and improve outreach and marketing. But I don’t see a big upgrade in people’s box office and data base systems, nor an increase in marketing staff to input and analyze attendance details.

Are we back to basics, then? If we are then we’d better be doing the basics well. And I think, for the most part, we are.

Like the Theatre Centre’s Eight Companies Under One Roof marketing campaign. “Sharp-edged. A treasure. Vigorous and intense. Redolent with disturbing beauty. Dynamo. These are some of the words which have been used to describe the work of the eight celebrated dance companies which, by some happy coincidence, are all renting our space at some point this year to present their creations.” It makes the season sound so very exciting.