by Jini Stolk
One of the joys of writing a blog is that the debate never has to end.
I don’t mean that literally, of course. The April 1 Civil Debate on Boards, co-hosted by Praxis Theatre and the Theatre Centre, was a spirited, thought-provoking discussion among people passionately interested in how arts organizations should work in order to work well. The fact that I and my eloquent partner Gideon Arthurs on the NAY side of the resolution “Be it resolved that Boards of Directors have the right and responsibility to overrule the Artistic Direction of a theatre company” were creamed by our friends Brendan Healey and Franco Boni on the YEA side takes nothing away from the pleasure of the exchange.
I’ve been thinking a lot since then about the definitions of “right” (does it mean entitlement, power, authority?) and “responsibility” (duty, task, leadership, control?) Also about the different perspectives of being on a board and working for, and with, a board. Like many people at the debate I have extensive experience of both.
The existing non-profit corporate structure is imperfect, but can be wonderfully successful with the right kind of care and effort. I therefore have a number of new resolutions to propose!
- That the absolutely best working practice for an arts organization is when the artistic and managing directors and board are working in harmony, bringing their unique skills and passions to the challenges of advancing the mission and vision – and that a respectful collaborative relationship is the gold standard.
- That the board has a special responsibility for governance and sustainability, distinct from the professional leaders’ responsibility for artistic vision, programming, and management. And that each organization has to define in its own way the separate and mutual roles and responsibilities of board and staff , and how decisions are made. These should be discussed, written down, and adopted as governance policies.
- That managing and artistic directors must embrace their professional responsibility to ensure that the board/staff relationship is working well and that board members receive the clear and complete information they need to do their work.
- That we in the arts community should work harder at developing board members’ skills and understanding of what the position entails. Currently, board skills are honed through years of experience: I believe we can do a better job of preparing and assisting board members to take on the appropriate task of governance, rather than operations?.
- That we accept and prepare for the fact that sometimes things go awry, despite our best efforts. In my experience at Creative Trust and beyond, problems most often revolve around the question of control, combined with a lack of respect by a small number of business professionals for the smarts and experience of arts professionals. The culture of a board can change quickly, for better or worse, because of one or two strong voices. That we should learn how to confidently handle these situations with confidence. (this piece on Firing a Board Member with Grace combines somewhat fanciful scenarios with useful information on how to handle the trickiest of board situations.)