Playing the Long Game: Developing our Future Board Members

Posted by Stephanie Johnson, Apr 18, 2017 0 comments

In 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers realized they had a problem. Since their 2001 loss in the NBA finals, they had been squarely mediocre. They hadn’t advanced past the conference semi-finals ever since, and that was if they even qualified for post-season play at all. What they decided to do was revolutionary.

Sam Hinkie, the 76ers general manager, decided to stop focusing on winning now. In fact, sometimes he made an active choice to start losing. Why? The worst teams in the NBA get the highest probability of top draft picks, and he was going to build a dream team, one player at a time. Hinkie and the 76ers were playing the long game.

Arts organizations can have a similar problem. Some organizations in our sector struggle to make balanced budgets, and while we’re producing thought-provoking, life-changing art for our communities, our financial situation can be squarely mediocre. So I, too, am playing the long game. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve losing at all.

As a major gifts officer for Washington Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., I’m constantly thinking about relationship development—whose philanthropic interests align to support our organization this fiscal year, and who, given more cultivation, might partner with us next year or the year after. But recently I started looking ahead, and now I’m thinking about who we might develop for five, 10, or even 20 years from now.

If that sounds intense, stay with me: Thanks to organizations like Americans for the Arts and a growing number of college degree programs in the field, we talk a good deal about leadership development for young professionals. I have confidence that young arts administrators are entering the sector more prepared than ever, and are thinking more strategically about their professional development and mentorship.

But that’s only one side of the equation. Good nonprofit leaders need good board members and board chairs as partners, so if we’re thinking holistically about leadership development in the arts, we have to develop our future board members as well.

At Washington Performing Arts, we’re investing our time in just that. Our Junior Board, developed with the incredible encouragement and support of our board of directors and senior leadership, gives young professionals under 40 years of age the opportunity to develop their skills in community leadership while gaining mentorship from our staff and board. They have skin in the game with a significant annual philanthropic commitment, meet for quarterly business meetings, and most importantly, work to develop strategies to engage their peers with our programming and mission—all activities akin to our board of directors.

Washington Performing Arts' Junior Board.

The group is rounding the corner on its first full year, and I’ll admit, it’s not always a smooth process. (I imagine the 76ers would agree!) Helping young professionals navigate philanthropy and nonprofit leadership for the first time bubbles up some interesting questions I never anticipated, and I’ve developed many new ways to describe the nonprofit budgeting and cash flow process! The bumps in the road, however, are nothing compared to the successes.

The Junior Board is invigorating our organization, challenging us to think in new ways about how we engage a whole generation of our audience. Working with this group has also made me personally a better leader, and much more equipped to manage the board relationships I’ll have as a future executive director. The best outcome by far though is building future board members who have experience with governance and have developed a passion for leading a mission-based organization.

We’ve already experienced the ultimate success, with one of our Junior Board members joining our Board of Directors, and even recruiting another new board member in the process. I recognize, however, that this won’t be the case for the majority of our Junior Board members, for any number of reasons. But even so, I’ve witnessed such a convergence of desire for good, coupled with sheer ingenuity and intelligence, that I have no doubt most of our 29 Junior Board members this year will end up on some organization’s board one day.

I believe so strongly in this experience and the urgency for this type of leadership development that to me, it doesn’t matter if Washington Performing Arts is the board they ultimately join. I’m helping to build the dream team of arts leadership, one player—one future board member—at a time.

The 76ers are still working on building their dream team, and I will have to be patient as well. But working at an organization that emphasizes this type of leadership development makes me feel proud of our investment. We have to trust The Process; the long game will be worth it. 

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