The Evolution of Boards

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As I travel around the country talking about the problems facing arts organizations during this recession, there is one topic that gets consistent and passionate attention: the role of the board.

Most board members I meet are scared and frustrated and most staff members believe their board members are not being as generous or as helpful as they should be during this crisis.

I believe there is a common mistaken notion that board members are responsible for generating the contributed revenue needed by an organization. While it is true that boards are responsible for approving fundraising plans and budgets, I do not think that it is realistic to ask a group of volunteers to take full responsibility for generating contributed funds. I have always felt it was my job, as a staff leader, to motivate my board to be helpful; but that ultimately the final responsibility lies with me.

How does one get board members to raise funds? I believe the best method is to get each board member to adopt a project. This can be a performance or educational program, a gala, or a marketing campaign. (Rarely does a board member embrace every program of an organization.) By allowing them to delve into a project, meet the artists, come to rehearsals, etc, they build an allegiance to that project. This, in turn, motivates them to get their friends and associates to invest in the program's success.

But this technique only works if the board members have the connections they need to be helpful and are willing to use them.

Many arts board members simply do not have connections necessary for helping the organization. These board members may have passion for the organization but cannot be helpful with fundraising. This is not typically a problem when an organization is young. But as it matures, the role of board members must change. Board members of young organizations frequently act as staff, doing the bookkeeping, the marketing and even sewing the costumes. As the organization matures, the nature of the board members must change as well. No longer does the board have to do the bookkeeping; but they must have access to funds needed to support the larger infrastructure.

This means that boards must mature and change as organizations do. This is the responsibility of the Nominating (or Governance) Committee, to evaluate what the board should 'look like' and how it must change over time.

At the same time, staff leaders must make sure the programming and institutional marketing are so strong that board members are excited about inviting their friends, and do not suffer from 'board embarrassment syndrome,' the fear that their friends and associates may not enjoy becoming involved.

When the board attends to its membership and the staff creates exciting programming and strong marketing campaigns, any arts organization can enjoy a steady and developing involvement of its board in its success.