12/16/2013 08:23 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

The Ideal Board

Almost every arts institution I know is trying to increase the potency and productivity of its board of directors. As we experience (often dramatic) reduction in government and corporate grants and as we compete harder for earned income and foundation grants, we all hope that a stronger board will give generously of their own resources and will solicit their friends and associates on our behalf.

Yet when I ask most arts leaders about the nature of the board members they are hoping to attract, the response is typically very general in nature and can be reduced to: we want rich people. This lack of specificity makes it difficult to target potential new board members.

(I will leave it to other columns to discuss how we turn rich board members into generous donors and productive solicitors. Leave it to say it is not guaranteed; when I joined Alvin Ailey in 1991 we had two of the richest Americans on our board -- neither gave, or raised, one penny to the institution!)

I find that it is far easier for a nominating committee to create a strategy for attracting strong candidates and to implement that strategy if they employ a simple tool I call "the ideal board."

The ideal board is a zero-based approach to designing a board. It starts with the assumption that the board has no members and we describe the salient characteristics of the board members we want.

But it does not assume that all board members possess the same characteristics. Of course we would like many generous people of means but we cannot assume that every person on our board will give the same amount. While it is useful to set a board minimum gift, we should encourage our board members to give more than this minimum. (This requires the organization to make it attractive to give more than the minimum s-- through sponsorship credit, public recognition, etc.) I begin the development of the ideal board by specifying a number of board members I would like to see giving at each realistic level for my organization. A few may give the minimum, more may give an additional 20%, and a few may give at very high levels.

But I also specify the sectors of the economy I would like to include on the board (those that reflect the most potent industries in my region), the number of members with social connections to other potential donors, the number of artists or intellectuals I would like to include, the number from other geographic regions, etc.

After the Nominating Committee members agree to this list of specifications, they can place current board members in appropriate categories. (Those who fall into no specific category probably do not belong on the board.)

The search for new board members who meet one or several of the criteria can now begin. But it can be a very focused search since the entire board can now understand exactly what is needed. And as we begin to 'fill the boxes' the search can become increasingly focused on those criteria we are still missing.