What a good board looks like

It’s axiomatic in the non-profit sector that, more than any other single factor, it’s the quality of the board of directors that determines whether institutions succeed or not. Of course, it’s axiomatic that the way to make money in the market is to buy low and sell high. That doesn’t mean it’s helpful advice.

But, if a good board is key to an orchestra being a good employer for its musicians, those musicians ought to be both concerned and informed about the quality of its board. But, while musicians may have an opinion about the quality of their board, generally it’s an opinion uninformed about anything other than the end result, which means of course that it’s essentially useless in informing the musicians about what they might contribute to building a stronger board.

So what makes a good board? There seems far more art than science to answering that question. But a good place to begin would be two recent blog posts (both of which I find through the email list that Ray discussed yesterday).

The first is on a blog run by the Western States Arts Federation:

Ideally, of course, we seek board members who are passionately committed to the goals and missions of our organizations.  Smart, involved people with deep ties to various segments of the community who will be active in helping to increase the capacity of our organizations, improve their sustainability, and be responsible stewards in the discharge of their fiduciary duties.  We want high profile people, solid business contacts, diverse representation and people eager to right our financial ships.  From the perspective of most staff, the goal is people who will get involved but not micromanage; partners in community outreach, fundraising and as advocates and boosters.  We seek people who have some knowledge of the arts and in particular the ecosystem of the given organization, who understand their role, and who bring something to the table as it were.

But the reality is that there are really two principal criteria that invariably govern our decision to invite someone to join our boards:  1) without meaning to sound specious, the main qualification we look for is really just a warm body – someone who will actually show up at meetings and contribute in some way, someone who will accept the position; and 2) people willing to write a check – the bigger the better.  Less important, but an added bonus is if the candidate has a high profile that we believe will somehow inure to the benefit of our organization.

We don’t, for the most part, vet potential candidates much more than that… Bottom line:  almost never does an arts organization reject a potential board candidate.  We can’t afford to – the pool is too small, the competition too fierce and the options too few.  And, we have so little time to devote to this enterprise.  We take what we can get and give the whole process precious little thought or energy.

Of course, it is difficult to find a slate of candidates clamoring to join the typical arts organization board.  And that is particularly true for those candidates every organization wants – the well heeled, people of color, business and civic leaders, people with cache.

The whole post is definitely worth reading carefully. The second post worth looking at is about specific questions that might be asked of prospective board members – and that those prospective members might ask of the board before joining:

The most important area to explore is specific to what your organization is seeking someone to do (rather than seeking what someone is):

  • One of the reasons we’re talking to you about possibly joining our board is because we think you can help us connect with other public school parents in the African American community. Are these connections you could help us make? (Don’t assume, for instance, that a gay person can connect your organization to the gay community.)

Other questions can help spark conversations:

  • What interests you about our organization? Which aspect of our organization interests you most?
  • What are some of your previous volunteer experiences or leadership roles?
  • What appeals to you about board service as a volunteer activity?
  • If you were to join our board, are there any experiences you’d like to have as a board member or people you’d like to meet?
  • What skills, connections, resources, and expertise do have to offer and are willing to use on behalf of this organization?
  • Do you have any worries about joining the board?
  • Is there anything you think you would need from this organization to make this experience a successful one for you?

If fundraising is an important activity for board members, be sure to raise it now:

  • We’re hoping that if you join our board, you’ll be a member of the fundraising committee. In fact, we hope that you will be able to ask five or ten of your friends for contributions of over $1,000 each. Is this something you think you could do?

Again, the whole post is worth reading carefully.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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