The Concept of Family

11/15/2010 09:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many boards of directors, seeking a measure of fiscal stability, hire corporate executives to run arts organizations. A large number of these executives quickly fail as arts leaders. They either decide that the arts are not for them or are asked to leave after creating tension within the organization.

One of the reasons for this high rate of failure is clearly the difference in mission between corporations and not-for-profit organizations.

The very words "for profit" define succinctly the true mission of every corporate entity. Despite the flowery words in their annual reports, all corporations aim to create the highest stream of profits possible to maximize share price. This is their obligation and their true mission. They may say publicly that they "bring good things to life" but they really hope to bring good things to their shareholders.

Arts organizations and other not-for-profit organizations, however, only know what they are "not for." What they are for--their missions--can vary widely from one organization to another. The way they measure success is clearly different from a corporation, and from each other. Therefore the way they plan and operate must also be different.

When corporate executives become leaders of arts organizations, they must truly appreciate this difference in mission or they will come into severe conflict with their artists, staff and board members.

But I believe there is a more subtle reason why many corporate executives fail as arts leaders.

Arts organizations are large families. Our artists, staff members and board members form the heart of our families. But there are many other members of our families: donors, subscribers, volunteers, etc.

Most of our family members are not paid. In fact many provide resources to the organization. They do this because they believe in our missions, enjoy their participation and are excited about our plans for the future.

Our family members become especially productive when they are happy. When they lose interest, they look elsewhere to participate. Successful arts leaders know how to engage members of the family in planning activities and key projects. They know that it is important to share information rather broadly to keep family members feeling involved and important. They invest time, often good amounts of time, to make sure that the family is as happy, and productive, as possible.

Corporate leaders are not used to this way of working. They are used to compensating everyone involved in the organization. The most productive employees are promoted and earn bonuses and salary increases.

Corporate leaders, therefore, need not provide the same level of psychic reward as arts managers and they don't need to be as collaborative or collegial.

Many highly successful corporate executives get leadership positions in the arts (and other not-for-profit entities) and ignore their family members. They make changes they believe are vital without thinking about the way family members will react.

When these decisions cause problems in the family, there can be many ripple effects: donors can reduce their giving, volunteers can depart for other organizations, staff can resign and board dissension can develop.

Not every corporate leader falls into this trap. But any arts board that hires a corporate executive to run their institution should be on the lookout for this problem in waiting.