Fletch Waller is the president of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra board of directors. This is part two of his series on non-profit arts organization governance. Part 1 can be read here.
Many arts orgs unabashedly use board seats as sources of cash, endowments and bequests. It is the socially prominent orgs that can get away with being heavy-handed, not only in New York but here in Seattle, too. I dare say the trustees of Seattle Symphony or Seattle Opera don’t have laid on them the $10 million expectations of MOMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art – that’s right, 10 million! – but the principal holds: you want to sit with the prominent in this community, either give or get. Check the roster of names the next time you attend SSO or the Opera or the Rep. I don’t want to sound too resentfully proletarian; at bottom, I’m really jealous of their ability to lasso big hitters in support of the arts they love.
In truth, all of us do it to one degree or another. Boards have a responsibility to generate the resources an arts org needs, and unearned income is needed. Typically, earned income from ticket sales and contract performances, from sales of CD’s and those souvenirs in the lobbies, account for only some 40% of total revenues needed to survive and serve the community. The rest comes from foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, and individual donations. (Did you love the way half a mill was raised in one day in response to the threat of cancelling the Lake Union July 4th Fireworks? Who’d notice if SRJO threatened to cancel its annual Ellington Sacred Music Concert? Well, in truth, by our standards a lot of folks would – SRJO and Earshot sold out Town Hall last holiday season.) Grantors are pinched in these days of shrinking investment and endowment accounts. So it comes down to individuals taking up the slack.
Some arts orgs pad their boards way beyond what governance experts say is an efficient size – around 15 active members. Operative word: active. Seattle Opera has a board of 61; the Symphony, 43; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 69. Even smaller orgs pump their boards. Seattle Chamber Music Society, for example, has 36 trustees. These huge boards are there to give and get. Many arts orgs rely on their board’s personal gifts for over 50% of total individual giving.
That’s not SRJO’s way. Not that we’re better or worse – just different. We have a board of 16 (and are actively recruiting for a few more who care and want to work – interested?) who are expected to “generate” at least $1,000 of revenue – gifts, sponsorships, donations, whatever. Their own gifts account for under a third of our total individual contributions. This year, our earned income from performances will be over 51% of total revenues, a high proportion that may say we’re not generating enough in grants, gifts and sponsorships.