The Art of Administration: Part 3 – Directing to managing to meddling…

Fletch Waller is the president of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra board of directors. This is part three of his series on non-profit arts organization governance. Read part 1 and part 2.

Fletch Waller

Fletch Waller

“If you’re managing, you’re meddling.”  So said a lecturer in a Chicago conference.  He was talking about boards of trustees of retirement communities. But it’s true for all boards, large or small, corporate or non-profit. His admonition is right on — when trustees or directors begin to manage, it signals there’s something wrong. As a trustee of Horizon House, Seattle’s leading continuous care retirement community, I hear his admonition ring in my ears when I feel the urge to tell staff how to do their job.

Directors should be stepping in only when staff has asked for help or when management must be changed in order to carry out the organization’s mission. But in either case, directors should be asking themselves ‘what is the underlying problem that a need to step in indicates?’ (Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if diligent and independent directors had seen the need and stepped into WAMU in time?)

Directors of small, young theatre, dance and music companies often have no choice but to help manage, for they are chronically understaffed. So is that “wrong?”  Only in that committed, volunteer directors and part-time staff can keep an enterprise moving for a time, in some cases for years.  But eventually, if an org is to sustain itself, the time comes for professional staff and management systems.

SRJO brochure coverThat’s been the case with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: we have reached that awkward stage of being too big to run out of a part-time Executive Director’s back pocket, yet too small to afford a full time staff. Our directors have stepped up to undertake management tasks in order to get everything done.  Our season brochure and concert programs have been produced via collaboration between staff and directors; our fund raising letters are director-written; our this blog is produced by a director;  our Jazz Scholars project is mainly director-executed.

But long term, this isn’t healthy. Such shared project management may strain the trustee/executive director relationship as well as compromise the objectivity and independence that trustees must protect. It’s a stage of growth with all the strains and emotions of a painful adolescence.  And like adolescence, it is best grown through and put behind one.

ArtsFund logoJim Tune, President of ArtsFund, has seen a number of arts organizations founder by failing to get through that transition.  Whether the problem is lack of funding to afford professionals or resistance to change on the part of long-term directors and/or founders, the “problem” is best viewed as an opportunity to arm the organization with the professional staff and systems that will enable it to reach more audience and become a sustainable contributor to the community’s arts culture.  Sustainability demands change and growth.

So, what are we doing at SRJO?  Setting about to fund supplemental staff – no mean task in this economy – and recruit executive talent.  But with transition to executive staff, directors should be able to withdraw from managing (or meddling) and focus on directing, on mission, and on vision once again.

Do you have experience, from a staff or board perspective, with an arts organization moving through this stage of growth? Join the conversation. Share it with us here.

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