11/18/2013 08:31 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

It Ain't the Bylaws

One of the tell-tale signs that a troubled arts organization is off course is when one or several board members announce they are revising the bylaws of the organization.

There is nothing wrong with revising bylaws; in fact it is helpful when bylaws accurately match the governance activities of the organization.

But when board members believe that amending the bylaws actually fixes an organization they are sadly mistaken. I have yet to see an arts organization that is troubled because its bylaws are outdated -- the number of board meetings, the structure of board leadership or the way committee chairs are selected have changed since the last by-law revision.

Arts organizations are in trouble because they do not create enough revenue to equal expense; ticket sales, tour fees and fundraising are not substantial enough to cover costs. It is that simple.

Board members who suggest that their contribution to fixing the organization will be updating the bylaws are not truly addressing the key issue facing the organization. They are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In fact, from my vantage point, board members often assign themselves to this task to avoid addressing the real problems.

In particular, it shields them from doing the fundraising necessary to bolster revenue. Most board members are afraid to ask for funding from their friends and colleagues under any circumstance. This is especially true when an organization is sick and the board member harbors some embarrassment about the way the organization is functioning. Volunteering to address issues with the bylaws gives the board member an easy excuse for avoiding asking for money: they are too busy working on behalf of good governance.

To be sure, there are other tactics that board members use to avoid asking for funds. Many ask for more and more data, suggesting they cannot make an ask without 'enough' data at hand. When the data is provided, usually by an overworked staff, a new request for data is provided.

Others ask for endless revisions to the way fundraising prospect lists are formatted. I worked for one arts organization that was mounting a special capital campaign - it took months and months to begin solicitations because one member after the other of the campaign committee asked for charts to be redesigned. "How can we ask for money if the prospect lists are not user friendly," I was asked repeatedly.

I have never seen an organization raise money based on the design of its prospect list. The key is to develop a realistic list of prospects, to cultivate the people on the list and to ask for money.

Not one creditor will be satisfied by up-to-date bylaws; no artist will accept compensation in manicured prospect lists.

Board members of troubled organizations must be willing to ask for funds if they want to see their organizations survive and thrive. And board leadership must be willing to say so clearly and explicitly.

Not much else matters when cash is tight.