Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wanted: Warm body with big checkbook

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................."

Board Recruitment:
While we do an increasingly fair job at trying to find the right person to fill our empty Executive Director and other senior management slots, the same cannot be said about our attempts to recruit new Board members.

Ideally, of course, we seek board members who are passionately committed to the goals and missions of our organizations.  Smart, involved people with deep ties to various segments of the community who will be active in helping to increase the capacity of our organizations, improve their sustainability, and be responsible stewards in the discharge of their fiduciary duties.  We want high profile people, solid business contacts, diverse representation and people eager to right our financial ships.  From the perspective of most staff, the goal is people who will get involved but not micromanage; partners in community outreach, fundraising and as advocates and boosters.  We seek people who have some knowledge of the arts and in particular the ecosystem of the given organization, who understand their role, and who bring something to the table as it were.

But the reality is that there are really two principal criteria that invariably govern our decision to invite someone to join our boards:  1) without meaning to sound specious, the main qualification we look for is really just a warm body - someone who will actually show up at meetings and contribute in some way, someone who will accept the position; and 2) people willing to write a check - the bigger the better.  Less important, but an added bonus is if the candidate has a high profile that we believe will somehow inure to the benefit of our organization.

We don't, for the most part, vet potential candidates much more than that.  There are no search firms to do sophisticated board recruitment, and the typical arts organization has no developed policy, protocol or procedure that governs the selection of new Board members.  New potential board members often meet with someone from the Board nomination committee charged with finding good board members in some very informal way and the recommendation to the full Board is invariably to approve the applicant - which the Board almost always does in some rubber stamp procedure with little to no discussion.  Nominating committee members seek out like minded people more often than not from some similar background or network from which the committee member comes, and while there may be some attempts to cast a wide net, that simply does not happen that often.  Bottom line:  almost never does an arts organization reject a potential board candidate.  We can't afford to - the pool is too small, the competition too fierce and the options too few.  And, we have so little time to devote to this enterprise.  We take what we can get and give the whole process precious little thought or energy.

Of course, it is difficult to find a slate of candidates clamoring to join the typical arts organization board.  And that is particularly true for those candidates every organization wants - the well heeled, people of color, business and civic leaders, people with cache.  Large euro-centric stalwart organizations make little attempt to recruit those with small bank accounts (for many the board is a key source of annual revenue and that need trumps the need for board members to be otherwise qualified and bring more than money to the table).  Neither the big cultural institution, nor the average sized arts organization, seriously tries to place younger generation members on their board.  The truth is that the profiles of many board memberships are self-perpetuating - including the questionable practice of re-electing board members to multiple terms.  Unlike the private sector and Fortune 500 companies, too few Executive Directors of our arts organizations serve on other arts organization boards - no time I suspect.  Most board members have little to no understanding of how nonprofits function - or what the challenges they face entail.

Theoretically, board members are responsible for the financial soundness of the organization and for providing expertise and support to the managers of the organization.  The Board sets policy and hires the executive in charge of running the organization.  The Carver principle suggests those are the sole functions of a good board, and that boards really ought not to get involved in day to day operational decisions, program management, or much more.  In reality, boards often ignore those suggested guidelines and see their job as making all kinds of decisions.  That invariably leads to conflicts, poor staff / board working relationships and suspect decision-making.  Many an organization gets into serious trouble because the board and staff are at odds.

Boards vary widely in their number, composition and the way they conduct their business and there is little development of any guidelines (other than theoretical) as to how they might best function.  We are, sadly, all over the map as it were in regards to everything about our boards.  Some boards are great, others pathetic.  It takes the typical arts organization some time to get in place a board that seems to work for it - at least in the short run.  Over the long haul, many arts organizations experience cycles of good and bad boards - depending in large part who is calling the shots.  And on the average board, some members are very active and others very passive; some are supportive, others almost combative.  Our board training is pretty much confined to some brief, and more often than not, meaningless orientation session, the proverbial board handbook with sections on the bylaws, finances and a roster of phone numbers, and the once ubiquitous annual Board Retreat - which seems to have fallen out of favor.

In such a climate, one would think that putting more thought into the recruitment (and then training) of board members would be accepted thinking for every organization.  Yet it seems to me we have been moving away from paying more attention to our  boards; less emphasis on who we want and how we get those people, let alone what professional development we provide them not only at the beginning of their tenure, but during that tenure as well (and the problem there, of course, is that most board members do not want to make that kind of time commitment, and though we want them to, there is no making such involvement mandatory for fear the potential member will simply bolt.  In that regard, we have paid little attention to why people join boards in the first place - perhaps because we intuitively know many, if not most of them, do so for the wrong reasons).   Everything from the number of members on any given board to the frequency of meetings is often an arbitrary and random decision with little thought into it.  Alas, too many decisions about our boards are given short shift.

No, there are few boards who would ever turn down someone willing to accept the invitation and write a check -- no matter how unqualified they may be in every other respect.

We really ought to pay more attention to what a board ought to be, how it ought to function, who we want on our boards v. who we will accept, and what we expect of them once they agree to serve - beyond showing up with their checkbook.   - not as a sector, but as individual organizations. We have moved too far away from understanding their role and maximizing their effectiveness.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.
Barry

2 comments:

  1. A timely post for me since I raised some governance related matters at my Executive Committee meeting yesterday.

    While there is no question that arts boards in our community have minimum giving requirements at levels that vary by their size and nature, I can't think of a single one of them that doesn't embrace the goal of having active and engaged board members--and some succeed at that.

    The problem is not that Board prospects of sufficient means are unavailable, but rather that their more precious commodity is time, which they are increasingly unwilling to give. Working people are putting in long hours and seek to preserve what little spare time they have for themselves and their families. (I once heard a former arts exec speak at a TCG Fall Forum about an organization he and his wife serve as board members--that organization encouraged couples to serve so that they would not have to sacrifice family time in order to do so!) Retired people are traveling.

    When boards meet bi-monthly (as does ours) or quarterly (as many others do), much of our effort involves just keeping them up to date on the breadth and depth of our programs and services--at least they can fulfill the role of community ambassadors if they are knowledgable about what we do.

    We DO invite our Board to attend the professional development programs we offer our constituent organizations, and I'm pleased to report that a good number of them take us up on the chance to learn more about the field.

    Over the past couple of decades, the role of charitable organization Board members in soliciting funds has greatly diminished in sync with the professionalization of fund raising--a trend observed and commented upon by many others before me.

    And many Boards, like my own, have delegated most of the responsibilities to small Executive Committees of the highly engaged members willing to roll up their sleeves and work closely with the staff. Such streamlining has enabled organizations to greatly enlarge their Board size, thereby multiplying their Board gift income, without succumbing to the dysfunction of an unwieldly number of Board members.

    Another obstacle we've observed is that younger Board prospects are often not interested in arts Boards, but feel much more motivated to contribute their time and money to human services and environmental causes.

    We haven't given up on our continuing efforts to cultivate and recruit vital new blood--nor will we.

    Also, as an arts council, we are outside the norm when it comes to having other arts CEOs serving on our Board (we have 4 + 2 university arts school deans). That helps validate to the rest of our Board that what we are doing is really needed by the arts community.

    Rick Stein
    Executive Director
    Arts Orange County

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  2. Insightful article on an ever present organizational issue. Thanks.

    Dave Waugh
    Executive Director
    Composers, Inc.

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