Fletch Waller is the president of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra board of directors. A retired hospitality industry executive, he is an active crew coach, volunteer, and trustee, providing time and expertise to the Board of Trustees of Horizon House, Mercer Island Open Space Conservancy Trust, The Olympic Club, Mt. Baker Rowing and Sailing Center, as well as SRJO.
This is the first of a series, by Fletch, on non-profit arts organization governance.
Last month, I engaged twenty-some candidates for Seattle U’s Master in Fine Arts Administration in a discussion of arts governance. Since all of these sharp students have spent two years or more working with arts orgs of one sort or another, they have a pretty good view of staff and executive director matters. But their exposure to trustees and boards typically has been more limited – so that is why I was invited to speak, as President of SRJO’s Board of Trustees.
We talked about theory of board governance – which looks logical and simple — and then about reality’s disconnects. In theory, a non-profit art org’s board ought to do seven things:
- Define the mission and vision
- Provide resources, i.e., dollars and volunteers
- Select staff leadership, i.e., the Executive Director or CEO
- Approve policies, plans, goals and budget
- Act as fiduciaries, i.e., assure resources are used responsibly and as constituents intend, and be accountable for delivery of services that justify the org’s tax-exempt status
- Evaluate and compensate executive leadership
- Support and encourage, maintaining positive relations with exec director and artistic director
This is governance: the act of governing. Serious business. It is important. But all too often, we see it abdicated to a strong executive director or to the organization’s founder. Why? Where does theory get disconnected?
First of all, art org directors are volunteers. What motivates someone to be on a board? First, it is love of the art – whether dance or opera or jazz or sculpture or whatever. And those lovers of the art may or may not be disciplined in financial oversight or priority setting or fund raising or performance appraisal or planning and strategy…. Sometimes it is the prestige of being on a socially significant board like the symphony or opera. In the case of smaller, less visible boards, directors often turn out to have had some relationship with the exec director or artistic director that led to being invited onto the board. So, between the love of the art, the prestige of position, and/or that relationship, objectivity can get waylaid. Hard decisions and diligence can be undermined.
Governance is work, and in these days of tight money, hard work: arts orgs are struggling to serve and survive. If governing and supporting isn’t fun, a volunteer director begins to ask ‘why am I wrestling with all this?’ One of my challenges then, as President, is to make it fulfilling and fun (and that is tough for old sobersides, here, who gets all uptight about projects, forecasts and due dates.)
Enough for now; I’ll post more later on how reality tests trustee theory.
Read Part 2: Trustees as ATMs