Board Member Seeks Other Board Member for Long-Term Relationship

Posted by Tim Bresnahan, Oct 22, 2014 0 comments

Tim Bresnahan Tim Bresnahan

Serving on a “working board” is challenging. Rewarding, but challenging. I recently had the honor of taking over the reigns as the Board President for Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, a small but mighty theatre in Chicago with a mission focused on promoting women theatre artists.  As we like to say at Rivendell, “It’s women’s work!”

Without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced as a board during my tenure has been attracting and retaining qualified board members.

Let me repeat: attracting AND retaining.

I understand that we need to build and sustain a deep and dedicated board of directors in order to build a sustainable organization that is positioned for long-term growth.  But I also understand that achieving this goal could be more easily attained if we had help. So I have a small but simple request.

Funders: please help!

I do not mean to suggest that funders are the magic silver bullet to this challenge. What I do mean to suggest is that funders could do more to help small arts organizations develop a strategy – and perhaps more importantly tactics – to attract and retain quality board members. BY “quality board members” I mean board members who not only believe in the mission and the work, but who have the requisite skills and personal/professional networks to move the organization forward, and are willing to make a long-term commitment.

The following are some initial ideas for funders to consider as they think about ways to help small arts organizations build and maintain strong boards.

  1. Unrestricted funds. First and foremost, funders of all stripes could truly move the needle for small arts organizations by simply providing more unrestricted funds. I am convinced that organizations like Rivendell could have more success with board development if more grantmakers provided unrestricted funds to pay for capacity building.  While receiving a grant to pay for a strategic plan or a consultant can be valuable, having additional funds to actually pay staff members to execute on a strategic plan may do more to help small arts organization achieve sustainable growth.
  2. Networking.  Funders often provide far more than just money to their grantees. Funders can help grantees develop strategic plans, introduce grantees to other funders and even connect organizations in an effort to share administrative resources. But I have to wonder if funders could play a greater role in matching organizations with potential board members. I don’t think funders always know the true power that they can play as conveners, and their ability to connect people. I would love to see more funders, including community foundations and corporate funders, consider their power to convene as a way to help organizations build strong boards by matching potential board members with organizations.
  3. Mentoring.  Yes, there can be real competition for funding, audience goers and board members between and amongst arts organizations. However, I don’t think that reality should be a barrier to arts organizations collaborating and supporting one another. I see a real opportunity for arts funders to play a role in connecting and creating mentorship relationships between established organizations and organizations that are not as far along in their evolution. I would argue that because arts funders often have a holistic view of the arts/culture scene within a community, they are uniquely positioned to help identify and create potential mentor relationships between arts organizations. And we can be real for a moment – a performing arts organization with an operating budget in excess of $20 million is not likely to suffer any fundraising or audience harm by mentoring another performing arts organization with an operating budget of $300,000. Moreover, think of the potential benefit to the overall arts/culture sector from the knowledge sharing that could some from such a relationship!

Of course, arts organizations ultimately attract and retain board members who believe in the mission, the work and the future of the organization. But finding those individuals is often a greater challenge than organizations anticipate. Further, board member burnout is a reality for many small arts organizations with a working board. Funders can help us overcome some of these challenges by reconsidering how they fund and how they support the arts organizations in their communities and in their portfolios of grantees.

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