Our unique leadership model

by Jini Stolk

Half way through a NPQ webinar on Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability (which will be very helpful in planning our November 27th Creative Champions workshop on Succession Planning) it hit me. The performing arts has for years been using a shared or co-leadership model that the wider non-profit community has recently begun to explore as a progressive alternative to top down hierarchical leadership.

The performing arts is one of the only (perhaps the only? I can’t think of another) sector that commonly appoints two people with distinct and separate skills and day to day responsibilities to lead their organizations. Our Managing and Artistic Directors each report to the board and are jointly responsible for the overall success of the organization.

How do they do that? With very little help from either the board (which rarely tries to define how the relationship works when they hire) or any established researchable best practices. It’s essentially left to us to build an understanding that’s productive and mutually satisfying (and that the board is happy with.) I wish our community were more inclined to analyze and write about how we co-lead – and also collaborate, create, etc. – because there are a large number of people in the non-profit, for profit and academic worlds who would be hugely interested.

Wendy Reid who had a storied career in arts management including at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is now on the faculty of HEC Montreal’s Department of Management, where she studies and writes on dual leadership in the arts. This piece contrasts traditional concepts of leadership with the complex challenges of a shared leadership structure.

Of course success in shared leadership is all about the relationship, and rests on goodwill and open discussion. I wonder if this Definition of the Separate and Mutual Roles and Responsibilities of Board and Staff from Creative Trust  could also be useful to GMs and ADs who are talking through how to define their roles and responsibilities.

Certainly the Artistic Director has to be an active partner in leading the board and in succession planning. It rarely turns out well when the AD leaves board matters entirely to the GM.

Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley, two clearly brilliant young women living in different countries and co-leading the international non-profit FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, have written the most helpful piece I’ve seen on the topic.  Their five good ideas (understanding your unique contributions, accepting your limitations, and building a collective leadership style; getting clear on what decisions you share and which you do not; looking after each other – prioritizing your collective well-being; the importance of flexibility, boldness and documentation; and being comfortable with asking for help, because collective knowledge, power, and celebration are everything!) are as good as it gets.

More on this topic

The webinar materials from Nonprofit Quarterly are well worth reading.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about the importance of collaborative relationships in developing business partnerships in Harvard Business Review: Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances 


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Boards adding value

by Jini Stolk

I had a conversation this morning with a long-time arts board member who feels that now, just as when he first started, most board members don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing. He personally took the time to mentor new board members and his board developed, over time, a detailed description of board responsibilities. But there’s still no universal template, no rule book, no easy answers.

Here’s one straightforward idea: board members are supposed to add value to the organization; their most important role is to take the long view – asking “what could be” before asking “what if” if things go wrong. There should be a complementary and collaborative leadership relationship between the board and CEO – each making different decisions, pulling different levers, but sharing the objective of creating the greatest possible value for the company. The board’s job, then, is to define culture, strategize, communicate vision, appoint the CEO, and inspire them.

This piece says that boards of community-based nonprofits should be concerned not primarily with financial oversight and accountability but with the ongoing sustainability of their organizations. Boards have to understand and engage with the “interdependent mix of programs and fundraising activities that work together to achieve a set of impacts and financial results…(so they can) meaningfully assist with the dogged pursuit of sustainability in which so many of their executives find themselves.” There’s no wiggle room here: board work includes resource development.

Another way to think about it is to differentiate between a board’s steering vs. rowing work.

In 2005 the charitable sector in the UK actually developed a Code of Governance, now being revised to place greater emphasis on the responsibility of trustees “to excel in their role and provide strong leadership.” Seventy-four percent of charity chief executives say their groups use the code, which helps them “meet changing expectations of donors, public sector clients, and those they serve.”

Among the changes currently being considered are:

  • Guidelines that help boards promote prudence, but also understand that being risk averse is itself a risk
  • Regularly assessing whether or not the work of the charity is still relevant in a changing world
  • Increased expectations about board composition, ethical standards, and terms of office

I’m going to quote extensively from a post by Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 on What a board is for because I think she’s got it right.

“For my first couple years as a nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary…I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes…I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.

All that changed when we started the (large new) Abbott Square (capital) project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn’t need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.

And so I turned to my board…Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way. The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. If they hadn’t been there…I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points.

This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.”

So be it.



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How and why people attend

by Jini Stolk

The more you know about your audiences and why they attend, the more successful you’ll be at filling your house. That’s the theory.

Not everyone is as immersed in research as I am. And that’s okay.

The National Endowment for the Arts research paper When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance says that barriers to attendance include time, difficulty in getting to the venue, and cost. the University of Chicago’s literature review on The Changing Landscape of Arts Participation concludes that cultural participation can no longer be understood as attendance alone: people are increasingly expressing themselves artistically, live and online. Even when time and cost are not a factor, people with low incomes and less education still don’t come out to arts events as much as anticipated, according to this piece. (Don’t they feel welcome? Are they not interested? Follow-up studies to come.) Free admission days don’t actually attract a lot of underserved or low-income attendees it seems, because we tend to target the people who are already coming with information about affordable admission days.

The plenaries and workshops scheduled at the Arts Reach Conference coming to Toronto in June are focused on data, research, and measurement. Yet Alan Brown’s study of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Audience Research Collaborative found that this program was not fully successful in moving performing arts companies to a more research-based approach to audience development and engagement. Data-driven decision making often hit the rocks of staff transitions, lack of capacity or prioritization of the project, silos between departments, especially between marketing and programming, and lack of ownership or buy-in.

I’m really not against using audience data to refine and improve outreach and marketing. But I don’t see a big upgrade in people’s box office and data base systems, nor an increase in marketing staff to input and analyze attendance details.

Are we back to basics, then? If we are then we’d better be doing the basics well. And I think, for the most part, we are.

Like the Theatre Centre’s Eight Companies Under One Roof marketing campaign. “Sharp-edged. A treasure. Vigorous and intense. Redolent with disturbing beauty. Dynamo. These are some of the words which have been used to describe the work of the eight celebrated dance companies which, by some happy coincidence, are all renting our space at some point this year to present their creations.” It makes the season sound so very exciting.

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Reading and writing

by Jini Stolk

I’ve been thinking recently about my favorite pastime, reading.

It’s more than just a lifetime joy (although it certainly is that.) The proliferation of book clubs, across ages and other demographics, indicates that reading helps answer a deeply felt need for thoughtful discussion and exchange of views.

Book Clubs for Inmates at the Centre for Social Innovation runs 29 clubs in Canadian prisons and halfway houses, providing participants with communications skills plus the chance to experience and talk about a variety of perspectives and life experiences – either reflecting or differing from their own.

Russell Smith writes about the connection between words and imagination in this piece about the invincible power of bedtime stories.

Reading is also the surest path to an emotional understanding of another time, another place, other people. The news has been full of stories about the 100-year-old World War 1 battle of Vimy Ridge, often accompanied by photographs of unthinkable destruction and devastation. But if you want to really understand Vimy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong will sear it into your mind and heart forever. Just as Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is essential to understanding the impact of the Cultural Revolution.

Reading books, like participation in other cultural activities, is associated with better health, volunteering, and strong satisfaction with life. However, rather unfairly as far as I’m concerned, it seems that reading is not one of the critical factors for maintaining life-long peak performance, memory, productivity, and immune function. I’ll still have to increase the number of classes I take at the gym, and sign up for another improv class (because it’s commonly known that the best way to have a good life is to follow all the improv rules, all the time….)

Writing is another story. In the arts, we’re supposed to be good at storytelling and for the most part we are – not just on the creative side, but also in our outreach, fundraising, publicity, even social media materials. I think it’s because our administrations are riddled with English majors.

If you don’t think good writing counts spend some time on a grant or prize jury, or on persuasively presenting a new idea or strategy to your Board. It counts.

If you’re feeling a touch of writer’s block, as we all do from time to time, here are a few tips for breaking through.

I found a somewhat unexpected insight into the importance of honesty and complexity in our communications with donors and audience members in a piece from Nonprofit Quarterly. Carlo Cuesta asks why we diminish the story of our work by confining it in a predictable and simplified context. If everything in our organizations is always going well; if we are all perpetually inspired and inspiring; if actors and dancers are always generous; and rehearsals are always proceeding from happy discovery to happy discovery – then why would anyone really care about one company over another? “In order to tell our own story, we need to listen to and embrace the stories of those we wish to reach. A story is a gift, not a donor-acquisition strategy.”


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Coming up at Creative Champions

by Jini Stolk

Creative Champions, Toronto Arts Foundation’s arts board network, continues its exciting line-up of workshops and events in 2017.

We started on February 7th with a special session on governance and fundraising at Artist-run Centres, arts service and membership organizations. It was a hot topic: people braved the year’s slickest ice storm to be there – a testament, I think, to the special role and satisfactions of serving organizations whose missions involve improving the opportunities, strength and voice of artists. Many creative professionals have their first board experiences at Artist-run Centres or a.s.o.’s, hopefully moving on to spread good governance practices (and creative fundraising chops) throughout the sector. As always, it was fascinating to hear the commitment and pertinent questions of many of those in the room.

Details on upcoming sessions will be announced soon, but if you’d like to get a head start on our topics for the rest of the year (and remember that Creative Champions is the only ongoing networking and learning opportunity for non-profit board members in the Province) here are a few advance readings:

April 4:  Diversity and New Perspectives

Good governance includes diversifying boards

Boards, succession and diversity

Diversifying your board: why it’s good and how to do it 

June 6: The Road to Fundraising Success: creating a plan and sticking to it

Creating fundraising savvy boards

Fundraising on a budget and understanding the fundraising budget 

June 18: State of the Arts: TAC’s annual update on Toronto’s arts community

Artists and cultural workers in Canadian municipalities

October 16: Advocacy: a core board responsibility

Overcoming the fear of advocacy

November 27: Succession Planning = Planning for Success 

Arts organizations need better succession planning now 

The importance of nominating committees

Interview strategies for boards and candidates 

AND we’re hoping to announce a special speaker for this Fall, but advance readings would ruin the surprise. Stay tuned for more.

Contact Michelle Yeung ([email protected]) at the Toronto Arts Foundation if you or board members you know would like to receive notices of Creative Champions arts board workshops and other events.

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Skills we don’t know we have

by Jini Stolk

I hadn’t thought about it in these terms until I read this brief post in Nonprofit Quarterly. Could it be that the success of many arts managers rests on an unrecognized skill – that of being dauntlessly determined to succeed no matter how difficult and terrifying the situation?

It sounds right to me and I could reel off the names of GMs I’ve known whose eyes lit up with excitement when faced with doing the impossible on no budget. No wonder companies find it difficult to replace these warrior managers when they leave.

Because it’s equally true that the stress of many arts managers rests on that same factor. Maytree’s Five Good Ideas recently featured Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, talking about stress management and resiliency. He posted an illuminating link to “The Inverted-U model” which shows that peak performance is achieved when people experience a moderate level of pressure (not an endless series of days with nothing but.)

That’s why one of the findings in the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts’ (TAPA’s) recently released Stats Report Phase Four is so alarming for the future of our industry. Despite increasing numbers of productions and performances, TAPA members report a decline of more than 50% of full-time and part-time artistic and non-artistic staff in the past decade. If this is true, then managers’ ability to dance on the head of a pin is not sustainable.

What do you think, my friends? Is this an urgent enough reason to rally behind a full-out push for increased funding to the Ontario Arts Council?

Let’s also spend a moment on an equally interesting counterpart: skills we don’t know we don’t have.

Denny Young in Hilborn: Charity e-news says that “If we’re having trouble with our boards, tension, lack of trust, micro-managing or lack of engagement, it might be because we’re not managing our boards and their succession” well.

Ask yourself if these are among the skills you use in your leadership role as the manager of an arts organization:

  • Are you always recruiting new board prospects; watching for future leaders: identifying, cultivating and bringing forward new members? Do you have a succession process and system in place?
  • At board meetings do you bring reports that show your vision, leadership ability and competence?
  • Do you credit your board when they make important decisions that move the organization forward? Do you report back to them so they know the results of their actions?
  • Do you understand that in your day-to-day relationship with board members, information is power – especially when shared? Do you inform board members between meetings of what’s going on? Do you take the time to meet with them one on one on issues they’re most interested in?

Denny Young ends his post by asking “Is this a lot of work? Yup.  But isn’t managing interfering, mistrusting Boards harder?”

I would add one more skill to his list.

  • Do you share with your board members the context and endemic challenges of running professional arts organizations? Do you recruit them to be “creative champions”, speaking out on behalf of the arts to elected officials and other decision-makers?

Isn’t it harder to achieve positive change for the arts without involving all our most passionate supporters in the effort?





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I’d like to say a fond farewell to four wonderful women who had a great impact on my life, and whose loss in 2016 touched me deeply.

Sandi Ross (1949-August 31, 2016) 

Sandi was an actor, activist and force of nature. She was an early leading champion of diversity on stage and screen; an untiring proponent of “non-traditional casting” (and it really was non-traditional at the time) and the founder and producer of the first national casting directory of visible and audible minorities. We collaborated often and joyfully around the Toronto Theatre Alliance’s Cross Cultural Caucus. She was an exceptional actor on stage, T.V. and screen; one of the founding members of Obsidian Theatre; and the first woman and first person of colour to be elected president of ACTRA Toronto. Her beautiful rumbling laughter could fill a room, and one of Sandi’s hugs would warm you for days.

Marjorie Sharpe (1931-June 13, 2016)

Marjorie was the first, the very first, funder of Creative Trust: Working Capital for the Arts, using her small discretionary budget as President and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation to help fund a feasibility study for a new venture in sustaining mid-sized creative music, theatre and dance companies. She was intellectually curious, trusting and warmly supportive – and delighted by Creative Trust’s eventual success. Many years later we were honoured to be included in her wise and invaluable book Governing with Soul (written when she was 79 – setting a high, high bar for non-profit career achievement!)

“Marjorie Sharpe’s new book about compassion, caring – and, yes, soul – as a factor in how boards work brings a new vocabulary and an interesting new perspective to the topic of good governance…It is a deeply felt, values and vision based approach…with an emphasis on respect, fulfillment, compassion and shared values.”

Sudha Khandwani (1933-November 3, 2016) 

Sudha was a pioneering producer and promoter of Indian dance in Canada, artistic director of the Kalanidhi Fine Arts festival, member of a close and accomplished family (Menaka Thakkar was her sister), and leading light of Toronto’s dance community. She was also one of the finest collaborators I’ve ever worked with, a calm, generous and delightful partner when Toronto Dance Theatre had the honour of helping host dynamic dance legend Chandralekha’s only tour of Canada. I loved hearing her voice on the phone as we dealt with the sometimes complicated details of the tour (which included Chandralekha setting a dance on the TDT company) – and seeing her in person was always a joy. (Here is a link to the beautiful memorial presented by her family and friends )

Joan Chalmers (1928-December 2, 2016) 

I was much too in awe of Joan Chalmers to claim her as a personal friend, but she was a huge presence and unmatched example of fierce and indomitable support for the arts. The Chalmers Awards for Creativity and Excellence in the Arts had extraordinary impact on the national arts scene. Toronto Dance Theatre was one of the 21 totally surprised and immensely grateful recipients of Joan’s generosity on her 70th birthday in May, 1998. “In 17 minutes, she gave away $1-million. The unwary recipients were gobsmacked and profoundly grateful for this reverse birthday gift. As they thanked her, Ms. Chalmers smiled through her tears.” It was an unforgettable lesson in the joy of giving.

I will also always be grateful for Joan’s founding of the M. JOAN CHALMERS NATIONAL AWARD FOR ARTS ADMINISTRATION – shining a light on some of the cultural sector’s most creative and talented, but too often unacknowledged, professionals. Four of my very best friends received that honour between 1995 and 2001, its final year.

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