For nonprofit theatres, a board of directors is more than just a tax requirement. At its best it can be a council of mentors to the organization, with fiduciary duties for the ethical stewardship of the enterprise and an equal responsibility to the aesthetics of the art forged under its auspices. Indeed a well-functioning board with engaged, highly skilled members can be every bit as exciting and essential to the artistic growth of the theatre as the other kind of director is to the staging of a play. The following insights are distilled from hours of conversation with some acutely intelligent people who rent a lot of their brain space to thinking about boards.
Refine your concept of the board. One common mental trap, suggests Bruce Thibodeau, president of Arts Consulting Group of Boston, Los Angeles, and Toronto, is thinking about “the board” as a monolith. He suggests looking at each phase of the board cycle—identification, cultivation, recruitment, orientation, education and engagement, evaluation, celebration, rotation off (if necessary), leadership and succession planning—and thinking about which members are engaged in which. This offers both a more complex understanding of the board and a more accurate way to get at board issues.
Make diversity a priority. There are five areas of diversification—staff, board, artistic, vendors, and audience—that merit the board’s attention, Thibodeau says. And there’s a concentric-circle effect to what happens behind the curtain, in front of the curtain, and in the audience. Boards also need to be attentive to the changing demographic of the U.S., and build in triggers for self-evaluation in the initial orientation and in an ongoing annual process.
Diversity shouldn’t be primarily associated with race or ethnicity but with skills, according Chandra Stephens-Albright, managing director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. The worst thing you can be, she says, is the black or the Asian person on the board. For example, there’s a thriving LGBTQ community in Atlanta, she says, and while True Colors isn’t expecting any one person to come in and represent the whole community, if someone is “really plugged into that political scene, it’s where they hang out, what they prioritize, they know where the hot buttons and hot spots to go are—that’s very helpful.”
Same time every year. Seven years ago the board of the Alliance in Atlanta imposed a minimum $10,000 annual give and $10,000 “get” requirement on its own members. So each year Jamie Clements, the theatre’s development director, confidentially meets with every single board member for their annual philanthropy planning meeting. Each board member only gets one visit on the subject a year, so that if the Alliance is calling them any other time they know it’s for something other than money.
Keep in touch. Not all your board prospects will be able to meet the donation requirement, but don’t’ write them off; people move up in their field over the course of a career, Stephens-Albright reasons, and in the meantime may advocate you to their deeper-pocketed higher-ups. Stephens-Albright says she always invites former board members “even years after they’ve rolled off our board, I want them to feel like they’re in our family.”
Invite the board in. The Alliance does opening night dinners for its mainstage productions, as well as six to eight small-scale, lovely seated dinners to promote board and donor collegiality. For its part, True Colors sometimes brings the art right into the board meetings, with presentations on set design or actor readings, for instance. Stephens-Albright says she was pleasantly surprised to learn that lighting, wardrobe, and sound designers can talk about the play with as much knowledge as the director. Bring that sense of wonder, she suggests: “You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s fascinating.” Related tip: Take board members on tours backstage to meet the staff and artistic team, and not just as a one-off.
Handle with care. Stephens-Albright has been on eight boards, and the worst thing she’s seen in her time is when board members try to run the company. Both the executive director and the board chair need to exert leadership in that situation.
Thibodeau agrees that part of the management team’s responsibility is to manage the board, but only part of it; spending too much time on the board and not delivering on the mission of the organization is simply not tenable. Giving a problematic board member a self-evaluation questionnaire can help them recognize and face the problem, creating a tool for a facilitator to say, “You said you’re not as effective in x y z—what would you like to do about that?” Stephens-Albright concurs: Ask them for input rather than telling them what to do.
Board meetings, not bored meetings. Reading numbers at meetings is enervating. This precious time should be spent not on what’s already transpired, Stephens-Albright says, but on what’s happening now and coming up in the future. Have a consent agenda to adopt the minutes and resolutions of past meetings. But when you’re actually gathering, talk about what’s on the horizon—the coming season, new people to look out for, the art that you’re thinking about and want input on. Look forward and you may find the future waiting for you.