Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On Boards

Joe's post at Butts in the Seats, "Skeptical Eye on Board Recruitment," raises an issue that has always bothered me on a personal level, but that I am willing to be schooled on: why is it that a theatre needs an outside board at all? Is this connected to this idea of a non-profit organization being an entity in service to the community, and so it should receive community oversight?

It has always annoyed me because it seems sort of like a requirement to have "grown-ups" oversee the Irresponsible Artists who simply can't be trusted to know what to do in the practical world of money management. Does it seem that way to you?

Because what seems to happen all too regularly is that boards get filled with people who are focused money issues, and their solutions to those issues almost inevitably involve encouraging the artists to do more traditionally popular plays, by which they mean plays that have a proven track record. This is an odd idea to me. If you were an entrepreneur, it would be like a board telling you that the best thing to do with the company would be do a knock-off of a successful product another company made money on in the past. This would seem absurd in the business world, but in the theatrical world it is almost conventional wisdom among laypeople.

A layer that has been added is the board as contributor and fundraiser, which to me seems like a way to reinforce the idea that the theatre is an art form for the wealthy elite.

This is why I am currently undecided on whether a theatre tribe should incorporate as a non-profit. The advantages, of course, are that a non-profit would be eligible for grants, which could be very important. However, if the goal is to disconnect as much as possible from that reliance on private and public grants, then not incorporating might be a good way to encourage that.

If I had to have a board, I think it might be worthwhile to approach it from a different direction. Instead of looking for wealthy donor-types, I might want to fill the board with experts in areas that connect to values and goals within the organization. So if you are committed to sustainability and eco-friendly approaches, have someone who knows about solar power or green theatre techniques (although I'd prefer to have that person on staff...Mike Lawler, I'm talking to you...), or local markets. If you are committed to extending the tribe's income through the creation of small business opportunities, you might want an expert in consulting or small business startup. If you want to market through relationships and word-of-mouth, you might want a person who is an expert in that area. Gonna raise food for the tribe? Have someone on the board who knows about subsistence or organic farming. In other words, create a board of advisers and consultants, rather than a fundraising board.

Also -- and this is going to seem contradictory, given my emphasis on maintaining a local orientation -- but I wouldn't be reluctant to populate that board with experts who live outside the area. Given that board meetings happen sporadically, it might be just as acceptable to have board meetings via video conferencing or some other alternative. Then create a community board that is drawn from all segments of the community, so that it isn't a board reflecting a financial and social elite.

Or follow the example of Shakespeare and Moliere and all the commedia troupes and don't have a board at all.


isaac said...

Hey Scott,

I'm actually on the board of a theatre company and so is my mother, and I've attended workshops on board recruitment and governance etc, so I think I can speak to this.

The idea is NOT to have grown ups policing irresponsible artists. The original idea behind boards is the same as it is supposed to be in the for profit corporate world: to provide oversight and to help grow the organization. Also, boards reinforce that corporations exist beyond their individual members, they are legal entities of their own rights, that have certain interests and needs that may not always coincide with what the people who work for the organization want. Board are there to protect and speak for those needs.

In the nonprofit world, boards tend to go through three stages. In the first stage, board are made up of fellow artists, friends, staff members of the company itself. As the company grows, they tend to get replaced (or eventually transition off) in favor of mostly contributors. And then finally, you have the institutional phase when you're looking for... well... basically high society types.

Now I think that something goes very very wrong with the conception of what a board is when we get to stage 2, for reasons that you are already beginning to explore in this post, and there has to be another way to imagine and structure a board. Board are legally necessary if you want to get tax deductable contributions, but organizations to have wide leeway to define what a board does and how it works. Companies should probably think through that process a bit more than they currently do.

Sarah McL said...

Here's something we definitely agree on :)

Just because I think this is a little unclear in your post: you can't have a nonprofit without a board. One of the very few requirements to incorporate as a nonprofit are three people to serve as your board. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it's the law.

Nonprofits are supposed to be private people endeavoring to do government-type work. The board is supposed to be a representative selection of your constituency. So essentially, the board is supposed to be exactly what you propose in your post - a representation of the community, not a reflection of the financial and social elite.

This sounds good in principle, but I personally find this system cumbersome and riddled with problems and pitfalls. There are good boards and there are bad boards, but really, what's the point? The people who actually work for the company are the most intimately connected with its mission and goals - why add the extra layer? There's got to be a better way. Who says theatres have to be nonprofits?

One interesting solution: set up your company as a for-profit, then create a charitable foundation within the company, and make your company members the board of directors. The foundation can be a nonprofit wing of the company that creates an annual festival, tours a childrens show, supports local writers, whatever. This way you can apply for grants, but the actual company doesn't have to deal with the board drama.

HLS said...

Wow-that's an interesting approach to the problem--provided that the theater company had sufficient financial backing to be viable as a for-profit...and could also get ancillary income from other ventures, etc.

I agree w/ the overall concerns...it seems incongruous that donor-boards should be viewed as ultimate caretakers of the art...shouldn't that be the artists? Are artists not qualified for fiduciary responsibility & trusteeship over their works? Do we need to frame this as a question of stewardship?

Richard Morell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
99 said...

I've ranted on this point over at my own blog, but I figured I'd pitch in here. This is a bit extreme, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the whole board system of governance is flawed and damaging. It was imported from the world of foundations and imposed on the more flexible world of theatre by foundations like the Ford Foundation and the NEA. That isn't to say that there are good board members and good, well-meaning boards, but the way the system is operated, you almost always wind up with the false dichotomy of "money" people on one side and the "art" people on the other. And when push comes to shove, the "money" people always win. It's a system that turns artists into serfs in their own house. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Legally, as I understand it, the board has one basic function: approving the yearly budget. And that can mean, simply looking it over and making sure that the numbers add up. This board can be comprised of just about anybody and all they really need to do in a year is that. It's possible and legal to have a board of artists who approve the budget and to have an advisory committee of money people who donate and have no actual say over the organization (and isn't it telling that those committees are usually reversed). In fact, the advisory committee doesn't even need to be "money" people. It can be people who donate time, resources or materials. It can be a reflection of the community and still be kosher.

We just get caught up in the models we have and start thinking that's the only way to do business. The truth is a lot more flexible than that.

Sorry for the rant.

Scott Walters said...

Anonymous: I'm so glad you addressed this issue. I'm on the board of a theater company, and it's so f-'in' high skewl I can't stand it.

We are going through play selection right now, and I would like to direct a play, but I don't want to do "Arsenic and Old Lace" or Neil Simon (GUH!) There is someone on our board who is an old fuddy-duddy along those lines. While we are considering "Vampire Lesibans of Sodom" and I suggested "Camille" by Charles Ludlam, A&OL is on the reading list. Oy!

I'm also a playwright, and I've suggested directing one of my own plays, and it's like I'm speaking "dog-whistle-ese." They literally don't hear me say it. And I think there's always the problem of sick "folkers" who like to be on boards because they're sadistic pricks with huge egos. I HATE being around people like that. I work at a law firm, I don't want to bring that legalist vampiry into my personal life.

A fellow I know in the community tried to be on our board for 3 months and got into an email flame-war with someone who liked to get drunk and fire off incoherent and insulting emails that basically said "I'm a great actor and you all suck." 3-Month Guy had the philosophy--"Life's short--why put up with assholes?" I guess I'm feeling the same way.

I have to say, taking a long-view that it's hard to be a writer with an authorial vision, to try to "play nice" with these sheeple AND to try to push for my own stuff. I've had mixed results at best. It would be nice to be a party to something that only did new plays or ones that were off the beaten path ("Time and the Conways" by J.B. Priestley, anyone?) and moved toward creating sustainable pieces that tied in a whole community of folks.

I'm not sure if I'm going to jettison myself off the board yet--I'm curious about how the global-collective financial situation will have its impact on what we're attempting to do.

On another side note--I finished reading World Made By Hand by James H. Kunstler. Theater and music become very important to the residents of Union Grove, NY in that book. I'm planting a seed for a future discussion on your blog if you're interested. Kunstler writes about how the things that Daniel Quinn and others talk about will come to pass whatever we do. In this fictional work, he tries to envision something that, while I have some problems with it, I also find it inspiring in a Big Eden (q.v. this film) sort of way.

My .02

Laura said...

Perhaps an active "fundraising" board would be less of a requirement for a theatre tribe in a community where there isn't much competition for cultural events. Which is probably the perspective you're taking, Scott, and in that case, it makes sense to question the best set-up. However, in a community where potential audiences and donors have dozens, or even hundreds of choices, of where to spend their money, an effective board can be a powerful force. In the best possible scenario, a board member is a community member but not necessarily an artist directly involved in producing the work, someone who is well-connected to other individuals or companies with money to invest. Why? Because we aren't just making art for ourselves (or are we?). If we are really offering it out to the community, we need to get the community to hear about it. The right board member is engaged and enthusiastic enough that they a)bring audiences, which increases ticket sales, and b)bring donations by their own example and personally convincing others with the resources that this is a company worth investing in. They are an advocate for the theatre company in social circles the company might not otherwise be able to penetrate. Artists tend to know other artists, so those are the audiences we bring in. What about everybody else that might appreciate the work if they just knew about it? Let's find somebody they'll listen to to tell them about it! And artists, let's be honest, don't always have a whole lot of extra cash on hand to contribute to furthering the artistic process. And it's a really insanely expensive process, creating theatre. So who can we find to get people who do have money they're willing to spend on it? The right board member. I think it's a good structure for companies in competition, if they can get the right people on board. If they don't, they're just figureheads. And if you're in a location where everybody already knows about you because you're the only company in town... well then, more power to you, you probably don't need the fundraising board, and go forth and prosper!

Joe said...

To add to Isaac and Sarah Mcl, you have to also remember that arts organizations are in the same barrel with all non-profits when it comes to laws applying to boards.

So when someone at the United Way runs off with money people start talking about lax board oversight at non-profits. Even though Joe Dowling didn't embezzle from the Guthrie building funds, theatres are lumped in with all the other bad apples.

Heck, there are those who want Sarbanes-Oxley Act applied to non-profits because of what the boards of public companies like Enron, Tyco, Adelphia and WorldCom didn't catch or turned a blind eye to.