10/28/2013 08:37 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Plea to Board Members

Many arts organizations have had to downsize their staffs over the past five years, a sad and difficult result of an economic downturn and the consequent loss of funding. Many others are simply lean and mean. In either case, the staff members of arts organizations are being asked to produce a great deal with very little.

They must ensure that important art is produced, sell tickets, raise money, embrace the community and serve a board.

They must develop budgets, strategic plans, fundraising campaigns, marketing materials, foundation reports, board agendas and minutes.

Those of us who work in large organizations are spoiled; we have staff members and departments assigned to each of these various tasks.

But I especially admire staff members of smaller organizations -- those with just a few employees responsible for this long laundry list of activities.

Their big challenge is to produce all this work at the same level as larger organizations. Audience members, donors and even many board members don't really care how small the staff is, they still want beautiful brochures, minutes delivered in a timely fashion, accurate and neat financial statements and insightful strategic plans.

I have noticed that as times have gotten tougher, many board members are actually increasing their demands for analyses, plans and budgets.

When board members get nervous, they often want more information. They believe they must make critical marketing and fundraising decisions and need more information to do so.

Sometimes, all of this information actually leads to great and productive action. But more often than not it results in nothing but a burned out staff.

And all too often, the staff members face a daily dilemma: do I fulfill this request from a board member (thinking all the while, "I fear this work will lead to nothing") or do I do the work I know is needed to help the organization survive? This choice can have major repercussions. A board member of one organization I know well rescinded a major pledge because no one on staff followed up, over a three-week period, on her offer of a major gift. They did not follow-up because they were all on furlough ordered by the board! In less dramatic cases, the staff is called lazy, uncooperative or incompetent if they do not follow-up on every request immediately.

When board members begin to believe the staff is incompetent, they undermine the ability of the staff to do their jobs effectively.

Especially for those arts organizations that are reducing staff, board members must be willing to prioritize their requests, be willing to forego the occasional set or committee minutes or pitch in and write and send a board meeting agenda themselves.