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Preparing Board Members for Their Stewardship Role: Whose Job Is It?

ISSUE 21 • November 2023

Blurred out board members

By Alan Brown

This post is part of a series examining more leadership training in the arts.

Recent strategic planning assignments have cast me into the treacherous landscape of board engagement and left me feeling a bit like the orphaned child of Joan of Arc and Don Quixote, a slayer of windmills now reduced to a pile of ashes. All of which has left me wondering, who is responsible for training the community leaders who actually hold ultimate responsibility for the artistic health and financial sustainability of our nonprofits?

An old board, all white, rich men

Who gets to talk about institutional strategy?

I don’t know where I got the idea that all board members would be interested in chewing the fat about institutional strategy, but this is not the case. As a matter of principle, I persist in thinking that every single member of an arts organization’s board of directors can and must engage with matters of vision, core values, and high-level business strategy. In reality, the heavy lifting of creative thinking about strategy typically falls to a very small group of board members, who tend to defer to a CEO. In my experience, the hallmarks of a healthy planning process are meaningful debate and productive disagreement about the best path forward. But that level of discourse requires a certain fluency with the language and logic of strategy, which is not in everyone’s wheelhouse. Can we support more board members in engaging with strategy?

Who gets to talk about programming policies?

Until my last breath, I’ll continue to assert that board members have a role to play – at an appropriately high level of policymaking – in establishing the basic parameters of an arts organization’s public programming. Never to meddle in day-to-day artistic decisions, of course, but at the policy level. To what ends do we offer programs? Who do we wish to serve? What impact do we want to have with our programs? What is in-bounds and out-of-bounds in terms of aesthetics? What is our appetite for risk-taking? This level of policy creates a bridge between board members and artistic staff and allows for accountability beyond just hiring and firing. Most board members feel unequipped to discuss programming strategy, however. In fact, they’ve been told for years to stay out of it. So, there’s a great need for training here.

Who gets to talk about equity?

Bringing board members into substantive conversation about what an organization’s commitment to equity looks like now and might look like in the future has been fraught with roadblocks. There is clearly a level of discomfort with the subject matter and a lack of familiarity with the language and the underlying constructs. If anything, I’ve learned that the pathway toward equity requires one to be a humble learner. Honestly, a lot of board members – many of whom have been community leaders for decades, many of whom are successful in business, and many of whom are long in the tooth – might not have the energy to be a student again, particularly when the subject is equity. When I hear things like, “Why are we having this conversation [about equity]? We’re an [arts] organization, not a social service organization…” it strikes me that we have a serious skills deficit that really, really needs to be addressed with all the grace and persistence at our disposal.

Empty Table

So, whose job it is to train board members?

In all my years as a consultant, I’ve seen precious few attempts to systematically address that question aside from one-off seminars produced by foundation funders. To their credit, some national and regional service organizations do offer excellent programs for board members. But the level of investment here is minuscule in relation to the need. Every single city should have a top-drawer board training program supported by a consortium of funders, agencies, and academic partners. The investment required annually is modest, while the potential gain is enormous.

This is piece is part of our On Our Minds newsletter. Previous issues of On Our Minds focused on equity in the arts. You can read other posts here:

Arts Outcomes Worthy of Pursuit – Joanna Borowski and Samuel McDonald of the New Jersey Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department share outcomes they considered worthy of research for their Training Ensemble. 

Access to Evaluation Services – Finally, our colleague and collaborator Allison Russo shares how close to 100 arts education organizations in Newark are working together to gain access to quality evaluation services.