BRAINS! How to build a Working Board (and staff)

Zombies in the sunset
You don’t need zombies on your Board; build it with the right brains.

In yesterday’s post, I suggested you build your Board (and small staff) based on the types of brains you need. What did I mean by that?

In my ~25 years working in nonprofit theatre, I’ve noticed we tend to have two approaches to hiring:

  1. Gosh, we love this person! How can we keep them around? Ooh, we need someone to do this job, let’s put them there!
  2. We need a Marketing Director. No, we can’t hire that person, they’ve never been a “Marketing Director” before! (or never worked in theatre or don’t know our market, or…)

Of course, when you read them written out in black and white, you recognize that neither of these approaches serve us. The same is true of how we build a Board…we think we need someone with:

  • Marketing experience
  • Fundraising experience
  • HR experience
  • or “Jim is such a nice guy, I don’t want him to feel left out”

I propose that, especially for Working Boards and small staffs, we move completely away from titles, specific experience, and personalities and focus instead on the types and variety of brains we need at the table. Here’s my current list (in no particular order):


The Strategizer can see the forest for the trees; the “big thinker.” The one who can look ahead and see the trajectory and the future impact of the organization. This is not always (or only) the Artistic Director or the Board Chair. I specifically chose “Strategizer” instead of “Visionary” because the Strategizer can also be the one who sees another’s vision and can help map out how to get there. They can survey the landscape and see how the community and the art intersect. Their enthusiasm for the future is infectious.


The Researcher loves detail and data (although they may not call it that). They like to dig deep into possibilities and find all the options. They’re the ones who build (or find) your community needs assessment, compile your list of potential funders and/or community partner possibilities. They are also the ones who read through all the federal/state/local requirements for your org and build the checklist of filings. Insurance, unions, real estate? The Researcher can get you all the information you need to make a truly informed decision.


The Implementer wants to do the thing. They get a thrill out of crossing things off their list and a job well done. They post to your social media and write marketing copy and donor communications. They are also your bookkeeper. Implementers make sure the contracts get completed and the corporate filings submitted. They are also the ones who handle the scheduling…making sure the Strategizer and Community Builder have appointments to meet with the funders/partners the Researcher found.

Community Builder

The Community Builder has the gift of hospitality and developing strong relationships. They’re the ones who meet with potential community partners. They also can serve as translator in meetings between the Strategizer and a potential funder…they hear what both parties are saying and articulate how they connect and serve each other. You want a Community Builder in your Front of House. Sure, you may need an Implementer to sell the tickets, but you better have a Community Builder as the House Manager to make sure everyone feels welcome…even when the Implementer focuses on “rules” that need to be upheld. A Community Builder is also key to the role of Company Manager…the person who bridges the administrative and artistic communities…the avoid the “us” and “them” mindset on either side.

The key here is balance…making sure you have enough of each type of brain to handle the workload, especially when you are talking about Board (volunteers) and as your professional staff grows.

The huge upside of finding the balance is that your executive leader (staff or Board or both) doesn’t have to be all the brains for every situation…that is a recipe for frustration, burnout, and a feeling that they are just bad at their job. No one can be all of these brains and we have to stop expecting it.

Next we’ll talk about building strong Board/Staff relations…concrete ways to support the symbiosis and avoid the parent/child paradigm.

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