A good board at work

by Jini Stolk

I was listening hard at a recent meeting as Ontario Trillium Foundation board member Dev Sainani spoke about the board’s involvement in the foundation’s recent strategic review. Our work, he explained, was to help the foundation set direction and carry out its priorities; look at its impact; help create a strategic focus; help keep everyone up to date on what’s happening in sectors across the province; ensure the foundation’s focus is still valid; examine our priorities to ask if they are still valid; gather wide input; encourage partnerships; help the foundation’s activities become a greater success in order to better achieve its mission.

And finally, he said, “We’re here to support the efforts of staff.”

These comments reflect a nuanced and enlightened understanding of the role of a nonprofit board:  to reach out into the community, serving as additional eyes and ears to help understand community expectations and needs, changing contexts and realities, and new or growing opportunities for partnership and support.

At Factory Theatre I’m increasingly worried that the current situation is threatening the future of one of Toronto’s iconic theatres, a company at the centre of the development of Canada’s theatrical voice. Surely among the 4,227 petition-signers, and 270 artists pledging to boycott the company, there are significant numbers of audience members and donors. No matter who is hired as new artistic director (if it gets to that,) it’s going to be a long uphill battle to rebuild and repair.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a deep sense of personal loss about all this, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is just a “theatre issue.” In the past week alone, six friends with no connection to the performing arts have asked me, as one person put it, about “the Factory debacle.” I’m afraid this growing controversy is having a negative impact on people’s perception of our sector’s professionalism – and I’m fascinated but a bit wary about its potential impact on the structural evolution of arts organizations as a whole.

I’ve been reflecting on an older piece by Joe Kluger from WolfBrown’s On Our Minds about the mounting political pressure in the States for government to reexamine the criteria for tax-exemption and make it more a function of demonstrated public service than the absence of profitability. As public sector resources are increasingly strained, he says, arts organizations should be reexamining their missions, programs and financial structures to be sure they are serving the broad public interest, rather than their narrow self-interests.

This is not at all an unlikely development in Canada as well; the Canadian government has firmly indicated that they expect nonprofits to be serving taxpayers, first and foremost. But I also wonder if the kind of self-examination Kluger suggests might be triggered here by artists increasingly dissatisfied by the existing nonprofit governance structure, with its ambiguities, perceived hierarchies, and – sometimes – detachment from public opinion and response.

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