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Michael Kaiser

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My Trip to England: The Power of Boards

Posted: 06/27/11 09:22 AM ET

My trip to England once again illuminated the remarkable construct of the American board of directors.

In most countries, and certainly in England, board members traditionally functioned primarily as overseers -- making sure the organization is being prudent with its resources and is managed in a responsible way. Board members were also responsible for assuring that government funds were well-spent. Since government funding was a majority of funding available for the arts, this was not an insubstantial task.

To this day, few board members believe they have a responsibility for participating in the gathering of resources or for giving of their own. Years ago, when I asked one (astonishingly wealthy) member of a board of a South African arts organization whether or not she was a contributor, she replied, "I am a contributor. I contribute by going to board meetings."

This attitude hampers substantially the ability of arts organizations to build large bases of private support. Staff members simply do not have the connections that allow them access to people of means; they need board members to open doors to their friends and associates.

This can be especially true in England where class distinction is still more pronounced than in the United States. Approaching the wealthy in England is extremely difficult without the help of someone the prospect considers a peer.

There are exceptions of course. Perhaps most famous amongst these is Dame Vivien Duffield, a fundraising dynamo for Oxford University and numerous other organizations. When I served as Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, Vivien was the head of our Trust (fundraising division) and ran the campaign to build the new opera house. She was as impressive a fundraiser as any American counterpart.

But Dame Vivien is an exception. There are too few like her who use their wealth and position to bring resources to the organizations they love.

As England, and much of the rest of the world, attempts to build more private support for the arts, it will be essential that board members open their hearts and their rolodexes and come to feel a vital part of fundraising endeavors.

To be sure, not every American board member scores high in this area, nor do some arts executives here know how to encourage positive activity amongst their board members. This requires the arts manager to pursue an aggressive institutional marketing effort, building and maintaining relationships with each board member as an individual, and engaging each member in a project of special interest and importance to them.

We all have a way to go before our boards are happy, involved and helping to ensure the fiscal and artistic health of our organizations.

But the transition in other areas of arts funding in England has been extraordinary; there is now a cadre of professional, well-trained development executives who are making their mark.

I would not be surprised if in 10 years time English boards did not rival their American counterparts with respect to involvement in fundraising.