Huffpost Arts
Michael Kaiser Headshot

One Role of the Chair

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As the pressures facing arts organizations increase, it has become more important than ever that the selection of a Chair of the Board be made with care.

For many organizations, the Chair has traditionally been the board member who is the most generous to the organization or the one who has the most fundraising connections. It is, without doubt, important for the Chair to be a role model for generosity and for a commitment to soliciting funds. When the Chair is inactive in fundraising, it gives every board member the impression that asking for funds is not required or even rewarded.

But as arts institutions face dramatic changes in audience participation, a drop off of funding from some traditional stalwarts, and increased competition from new forms of entertainment, the Chairs of many organizations have been forced to play a new role: chief negotiator between factions of board and staff who see differing solutions to these challenges.

Over the past three years, I have observed an increasing number of loud and angry exchanges between board members and between board and staff members. While one can applaud the passion of all participants and their concern for the future of their organization, one must also acknowledge that solving today's problems results primarily from a concerted, unified effort to find new friends, donors and board members.

But who wants to join the board of an organization that faces its problems with anger? Which board member is going to ask a friend to join the board of an organization where board members express disdain for the staff? Or vice versa?

How can the organization pursue a coherent fundraising strategy if board and staff cannot work together?

And how does one build an image for excitement and quality when so many constituents are vocal about their lack of respect and support for each other?

It is up to the Chair of the Board to establish the rules of conduct for the organization. The Chair must ensure that all parties remain civil and that differences are resolved in a mature manner.

The Chair also determines how and when board and staff communicate with each other; can any board member give direction to any staff member? Do all requests of the staff funnel through the Chair to the Executive Director?

The Chair must also ensure that differences remain within the confines of the meeting room and that outside of the organization, a united front is presented to potential donors.

Not everyone can be a good Chair. One must have the maturity and discipline to set the rules of behavior and the courage to enforce them.

For some organizations, this means that a two-prong leadership structure makes the most sense: one co-chair who focuses on fundraising and a second who runs meetings. (Some organizations have a Chair and a President to fill these two roles.)

I do not see things getting any easier for arts organizations, so the proper choice of structure and of people to fill leadership roles is only going to get more important in the years to come.