One of the great pleasures of my first year and a half at TCG has been the chance to meet with trustees from theatres around the country. Whether in their home institutions, at our biennial conference in San Francisco, in New York at our Fall Forum on governance issues or at meetings of the National Council for the American Theatre (a working group of 18 trustees drawn from theatres around the country), the trustees I’ve gotten to know have displayed passionate commitment, tenacity and a healthy curiosity about improving their own effectiveness, both within the theatres they represent and within their larger communities.
In these meetings, there were several recurring questions:
- How can we effectively encourage a new generation of trusteeship? In too many communities, trustees seem caught in a game of musical chairs: A theatre trustee moves to the symphony, while a symphony trustee moves to the opera, filling the seat vacated by the opera trustee’s move to the museum, and so on. But how can a community’s roster of potential trustees be expanded?
- Where are the new, young trustees? Many communities have experienced a graying of trustees, and indeed our own board-and-governance survey suggests that the average age of trustees is in the 50-ish range (although that figure drops in the case of smaller theatres). While some have suggested that this age level is the inevitable consequence of career paths and personal fortunes that delay involvement for many until middle age or beyond, I am less convinced. Those who follow philanthropic patterns note that the under-30 generation is actually more involved in board service and volunteer activities than at any other time in our history; unfortunately for the arts, however, their interests focus most heavily on environmental and health issues.
- How do we protect and transform our existing trustees? Our theatres depend on a small circle of seriously committed board supporters. While many boards have term limits-a conscious strategy to protect trustees from burnout and to offer new opportunities for those rare new board candidates-others do not, and too many of us cling to valuable board members in ways that ultimately serve neither theatre nor trustee well. As well as protecting them, we should be seeking to transform trustees-to turn them from being mere supporters to being true advocates for their own organizations and for the field as a whole.
- What distinguishes advocacy from support? Like it or not, our trustees are privy to a candor in the community about our work that many of us do not experience. It is at dinner parties, in the corporate board rooms, during the casual encounter in the grocery store that our trustees become our eyes and ears, hearing what we might miss. The advocate brings that information back to us-as painful as it may be to hear-conscious that our growth, both artistically and in the community, depends on our ability to respond to the real needs of our audiences.
At the same time, in moments of controversy, trustees can speak on our behalf with an authority and a power that we simply cannot possess. When artists speak out in their own defense, the resulting dialogue is often perceived as too self-interested to be of value. But when artists are attacked as self-indulgent or (laughingly) as living lives of economic luxury, it is the trustee who can be the most effective voice of rebuttal, standing for the notion of the work we do and the conditions we actually face. This role of trustee advocate goes far beyond that of trustee check-writer, and it is one of the most critical our boards can play.
That said, it is alarming that in our survey, 92 percent of theatres indicated that their trustees have limited understanding of the theatre field and the issues facing nonprofits. If we expect trustees to be effective advocates, we must dedicate time and resources to enhancing their understanding. Every board member who is not versed in artistic issues and field conditions is a lost opportunity.
There are other, simpler avenues to advocacy. A true advocate, for example, brings a child (or better yet, two) to the theatre each time he or she attends, contributing not only to the growth of our audience over time but to the humanizing of a young mind. Research has shown that two impacting forces produce lifelong readers-parental example and peer reinforcement. Are we wrong to suppose that these two also lie at the heart of producing lifelong audiences?
Can we ask our trustees to create an e-mail list of 10 or more friends who do not patronize our work, and to drop them a timely e-mail inviting them to our theatres? The potential is enormous. And the trustee who accompanies an artistic or development director on a funder visit (and believe me, as a former funder, it makes an enormous statement); the trustee who organizes a breakfast for the artistic director to speak to prospective friends, and so on.
At TCG, we are seizing the opportunity to interact with trustees in more significant ways. Their generosity to all of our organizations is deeply inspiring, and they deserve great credit for the success of our field. Thank you, trustees, from us all.