The creation and maintenance of truly effective boards of directors has become an urgent priority for many TCG theatres. More and more, we receive calls asking about board recruitment, about board committee structures, about effective strategies in board education. As the very nature of board service is changing—from the forthright concept of institutional support to the imperatives of advocacy and activism, a profound shift—it becomes more and more important to help our boards find and maximize their role, even as we ask them to do more and more on our behalf.
Perhaps the best resource I have encountered in this respect is William Bowen’s Inside the Boardroom: Governance by Directors and Trustees (John Wiley & Sons). This thoughtful book identifies six basic functions of the not-for-profit board: selecting, encouraging, advising, evaluating and replacing the head of the organization; reviewing and adopting long-term strategic directions and specific objectives; insuring that the organization has the necessary resources—human and financial—to pursue the work; monitoring performance of management; insuring that the organization operates responsibly and effectively; and insuring board survival and performance, including evaluation of members, recruiting new members, etc.
Bowen’s description points towards a partnership that preserves the line between governance, the board’s primary province, and management. It recognizes implicitly that the creation of policy is the province of the professionals at the center of the organization. It invites a new kind of productive partnership between boards and staffs, clearly articulating responsibilities and concerns.
A frequent source of conflict—especially as it involves new board members—comes when it is time to select the theatre’s season. Confusion can begin when we tell potential board members that their job will include the creation and establishing of “policy”—a designation that might naturally lead board members to assume that they will dictate play selection, our most visible policy decision.
Philosophy aside, for a moment, can play selection be a committee activity? Getting a board to come to consensus on a group of titles can only mean eliciting responses to work they already know; without the professional vantage point, committees inevitably arrive at the “middle,” discarding some of the most exciting and dynamic work in the name of building democratic consensus.
But the creation of art is not a democratic process: even in an ensemble setting, it is a led collaboration. And in an arts organization, that leadership must come from the professional artists.
Admittedly, those of us who work in the arts take pride in professional expertise. We give our lives to the theatre. We understand the intricacies of the creative process. We carefully monitor the appearance of new works and new artists of every kind. We are avid theatregoers, seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of performances each year. The seasons we program reflect both a very individual judgment and a broader knowledge of possibilities, of alternatives, of values and tastes, than the mere final handful of titles can suggest.
In any partnership, however, expertise is mutual, and in the best theatres, we recognize unique expertise in our boards—expertise that extends far beyond the checkbook. Our boards are authorities in their respective professional fields, and that wealth of knowledge may prove critical in improving our organizational performance. They are our advisors, our partners, our own brain trusts. They are experts in community life, in the political and social machineries of the landscapes we live in. Mutual recognition of expertise—reciprocal respect and appreciation—forms a starting point for functional theatre/board relationships.
Recruiting new board members is among the most important task for a sitting board. As consultant George Thorn notes, we must take the same degree of care, of scrutiny, of articulation of need and value, in board recruitment as we do in casting our plays. Any director will tell you that casting is 90 percent (or more) of a play’;s success—cast well and much of the work is done; cast poorly and your failure is almost instantly assured. The same is undoubtedly true of boards.
Even with the ideal board, what follows can be complex, demanding an ongoing, rigorous, open conversation about values and beliefs. “Risk” can sound attractive, but it inevitably means different things to a venture capitalist, a playwright and an audience. Many groups stumble over diversity; the choice of more than one play dealing with gay or lesbian characters or people of color demonstrates positive commitment to one group, while it is evidence of a negative “agenda” to another. More than one organization has found itself in deep trouble because of failure to plumb beyond surface agreement to reach deep understanding and accord.
Many theatres have made huge strides in effective board work, and the resulting alliances are inspiring to see. These partnerships are explicit in their expectations; the board members themselves are proactive and diligent in monitoring their own performance; and there are deep, rigorous, ongoing conversations not only about organizational issues but about the nature of theatre, about the artistic credibility of the work produced, about the necessity of commitment to artists. Our boards are wonderful collaborators and we must do everything to ensure their success, even as they strive to ensure our own.