This is the second of two “What Is to Be Done” columns by Bobbitt; the first is here.
Soooo…I probably spend 10 hours a week on board “stuff”: planning and scheduling meetings, pulling and creating reports, answering emails, resending documents, researching and providing education, taking phone calls, etc., etc., etc. That’s 40 hours a month, which is one whole week a month, which is 12 whole weeks a year, which is three whole months every fiscal year. What?! Oh, what I could accomplish if I could reclaim three months of time!
Is all this work for the benefit of the organization or for the benefit of the board? Am I spending time away from doing the mission-based work and advancing the strategies of the organization so I can alleviate the concerns and anxieties of the board? Is the board managing the leader, or is the leader managing the board? And if it’s the latter, doesn’t this become a sort of second staff to manage? Does the staff leader need the board to help make decisions when they already have a staff and/or a network filled with industry professionals?
Ugh. In our current structure, boards of directors for nonprofits don’t work. I’m sure there are outliers with highly functioning boards, but this is not the norm. How do we fix this? Is it a matter of isolated dysfunction, or a systemic disorder created by the board model? Should we medicate the symptoms or heal the underlying illness of this model?
A small, not entirely complete list of the problems with boards:
- Boards are filled with people who have little or no expertise in the mission or the product of the organization.
- Boards gather only a handful of hours a quarter and usually don’t have enough time to do the things they say they will do.
- Boards give themselves ultimate decision-making power to determine the organization’s finances, policies, and future.
- Boards demand that we engage them, creating essentially another “program” for the staff to manage.
- Most boards do not reflect the communities we are trying to serve.
- Boards have no one to be accountable to.
- Boards decide who gets to be in their clubs.
It is very strange to me that the oversight of the entire nonprofit regional theatre sector is in the hands of volunteers who have little to no expertise about the craft or the business, and that there is relatively little transparency about their decisions, let alone responsibility to carry out those decisions. Ya’ll, this model is broken.
I also have to wonder how much of the white supremacy that exists in our industry could be traced back to boards, where most of the policies are made. And I wonder what other problems in our industry—finances, relevance, advocacy—can be traced back to boards.
This leads me to a series of questions: Was the board model set up incorrectly from the start, or was a good idea corrupted over a period of time? Are there any “best practices” that could reform the model? Are boards actually doing what they are legally or morally supposed to do? Are boards actually equipped with the skills and time to manage or oversee leadership? Should the board be governing, or should this work be done primarily by those carrying out the mission?
And should the board be creating the vision? It seems odd to hire an artist or arts professional, then take away ownership of possibly their main assets—creativity, vision, imagination.
How do we address this? First, we all have to acknowledge the problem and put our collective and creative brains together to redesign it. This means that we have to consider that nothing in the American theatre industry practices to this point should be considered sacred, beyond question, or unchangeable.
Theatre artists are some of the most creative people in the entire world. Theatre incorporates all forms of art: visual, musical, dance, text, all alive and happening in the moment. We have the magical ability to see new worlds in our heads and bring those worlds and ideas to life in a relatively short time frame. We’re expert imaginators. So why haven’t we yet reimagined theatre as an equitable field, free from racism, showing the world as we imagine it? And why haven’t we imagined a new accountability structure rather than the broken board-of-directors model? Are we actually not as imaginative as we purport to be, or is this problem yet another symptom of the oppression of racism and classism?
A few ways to approach the problem of boards:
- Reconsider what you call the group. Perhaps something like “accountability advisors.” The terms “board” and “director” are marred with the implication that the board is the “boss.” I can’t imagine that Fortune 500 leaders would allow their volunteers to be seen as their “boss.”
- Let board members be vetted, elected, and evaluated by the diverse people who carry out the theatre’s mission: the staff and artists.
- Put artists on the board. They have the expertise.
- Let go of the notion that the board is providing business expertise. If that were the case, would we have the problems listed above?
- Qualifications for board membership should be created by staff and artists (those carrying out the mission).
- If you want to learn how to attract younger people and BIPOC folks to your organization, add them to your board and staff. They have the answers. Listen to them and include them in decisions. For example, most of my training in theatre was in the late 20th century. What the heck do I know about what young people want or need? I know a lot about what people my age want. If I wasn’t Black, I would wonder what would make me qualified to make decisions for Black people. But I can make decisions with young people.
- Eradicate financial obligations for board membership; the “strings attached” are significant and carry an inflated sense of power. Not to mention they create the threat of losing a gift if a board member doesn’t get their way or needs to leave the board for any reason.
- Bylaws should only be tied to federal and state compliances. Most “bylaws” that exist in governance documents have no legal standing or ramifications. They have been made up over the years the same way Spanky, Alfalfa, and the gang decided “No Girlz Allowed.” And most of the time, boards disregard the rules they set up anyway. The bylaws that exist form and maintain numerous power structures, dissuade accountability, and keep the “country club” country-clubbish.
- Eradicate Robert’s Rules of Order; they are archaic, pointless, and extremely white.
- Investigate new forms of decision-making: emergent strategy, consensus voting, or decision-making processes as they have long been practiced non-white cultures.
- Make sure that there is enough diversity among the decision makers to affect all votes. If only a few BIPOC people are in “the room,” then the decision makers are wholly unqualified to make decisions that consider all people. There has to be enough diversity—at least more than half BIPOC—to affect an actual vote, especially on decisions that have a racial component.
- All policies should center on serving the most marginalized, not the most privileged. If your policies are focused on the latter, who have the resources to get what they need by other means, you enhance oppression and widen the gap between the privileged and the marginalized. How much better and more relevant would our organizations be if we focused on serving those who need them the most?
- The whole ecosystem of your organization should be part of governance decision-making. Your expertise primarily lies in the staff and artists, not the board. At most, boards should be players in a partnership, not the ones in charge.
- The hiring of executive leadership should be done by artists in partnership with the staff and board members who truly represent the community being served by the mission.
- Make the decisions of the board public; there has to be accountability, or boards will continue to operate with relative obscurity.
- Boards should be ambassadors, not overlords. They should support and uplift the staff and mission, connect with other boards on industry issues, advocate for funding, fight oppressive and inequitable practices, encourage risk-taking, forage for resources, and spread the word in partnership with staff and artists.
Fellow creative folks, I honestly think we can come up with a better way to do the accountability, cheerleading, support, and advising that boards at their best should and could be doing. The way we are currently operating isn’t working. I triple dog dare us all to use our imaginative skills to redesign it.
Anyone ready to collaborate on this?
Michael J. Bobbitt (he/him) is the artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass. He recently took the job of executive director for Mass Cultural Council, which he will begin in February 2021.
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