Board ≠ Parent; Staff ≠ Child

Yesterday, we talked about redefining why your nonprofit theatre exists. Now, let’s talk about redefining how it is led.

Here’s the traditional list of Board duties:

  • Fiduciary oversight
  • Hire/fire the executive leadership
  • Raise money
  • Advocate and be an ambassador for the organization

This list is a good one, but it has led us to build initial Boards of:

  • Attorney
  • Accountant
  • Major Donor (often a family member or a friend)

This is a fundamentally paternalistic model. It shouldn’t surprise us as the whole nonprofit tax code was set up so those poor, big-hearted nonprofit folks could be governed by the “professionals” from the corporate arena. I mean, how on earth could someone who chooses community impact over a larger paycheck possibly know how to run a business?? I can’t speak for the business acumen of the intrepid founders of the first nonprofit theatres in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but in 2023 we have over 70 years of experience as an industry and “arts administrator” is very clearly a profession with skilled leaders driving innovation every day.

Let’s look at the actual legal duties of a Board of Directors (pulled from BoardSource, a fantastic resource for board governance, even if they are still a little stuck on the paternalistic model):

  • Duty of Care: Participate actively in making decisions on behalf of the organization and exercise best judgement
  • Duty of Loyalty: Put the interests of the organization ahead of personal and professional interests. The organization’s needs must come first.
  • Duty of Obedience: Ensure the organization complies with federal, state, and local laws and adheres to its mission.

There is nothing in those duties that says your Board members have to be corporate types or lawyers. In fact, sometimes those closer to the needs of the community can actually exercise the Duty of Loyalty more fully. I am not saying that your theatre doesn’t need advisors, you definitely do. What I’m suggesting is that (1) they don’t have to be on your Board and (2) if they are, their perspectives can be balanced with other types of Board members.

Many Boards use a “Board Matrix” to track their current Board so that they know where they need new Board members to fill in gaps. This matrix often includes areas like:

  • skills (marketing, fundraising, HR)
  • diversity (gender, racial, geographic)
  • depth of pockets

I’d like to suggest a new structure of the Board Matrix including areas like

  • what communities need to be at the table? (nothing about us without us)
  • how can the Board makeup specifically support your mission / need you are seeking to fill?
  • what types of brains are represented?
    • This is particularly important on a Working Board, although I’d argue that it doesn’t disappear when you move to a Governing Board (more on that later).

Next, we’ll go into the types of brains I see as essential to a well-balanced Board (and staff). I’ll leave you with this question: what does the Board/Staff relationship look like if we eliminate the parent/child paradigm and build it as a collaborative, symbiotic one. Truly, the organization can not exist (legally) without the Board and the Board is just a bunch of folks talking without the staff and activities of the organization. We are creative people; let’s build a healthy new model.

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