If only our boards had deep pockets, or friends with deep pockets then life would be so much simpler. That’s very true and it seems – following an Arts & Business conference on Twitter last week, and from the topics to be discussed at the forthcoming Clore/ Cultural Leadership Programme on Governance – that many of us are currently thinking about the role our boards can play in fundraising or ‘the US model’ as we sometimes refer to it.
But this worries me, for three reasons:
1. Fundraising isn’t the sole – or most important – role of the Board
The three most important roles of the Board are:
- To appoint, support and monitor the CEO – I’ve been talking to many current arts leaders and recruitment professionals about this lately in relation to my research and there’s consensus that Boards could improve in this area – more on that another day.
- To be ‘guardians of the mission’ (to borrow a phrase from Adrian Ellis), ensuring that the organisation is true to its core mission. Ellis suggets this role is best fulfilled by ‘artists’ on the Board as they understand the mission better than anyone. I would argue either they need also to be audience champions (and there are plenty of artists that are) or there also need to be guardians of the mission on board who understand the audience engagement side of the mission.
- To take a long-term view of the mission and organisation, beyond this year’s programme.
2. Boards should reflect the diversity of society not just those with big pockets
If our Boards are populated primarily with those who are able to provide major gifts – or connected to those that are – then we leave the accountability of our organisations in the hands of an economic elite and I believe that Boards need to reflect the beneficiaries we exist to serve: including artists and audiences. A couple of weeks ago I heard Martin Bright (of New Deal of the Mind) talking passionately about class being the biggest barrier in the cultural sector – his point being that we draw our workforce primarily from a social elite. This is even more true of our Boards. Class is the biggest determinant of participation in culture – according to ACE research cite in John Holden’s excellent Culture and Class. If we are to reach a wider audience then it’s important our Boards and staff reflect the wider population – this is a debate that’s been well rehearsed in terms of ethnicity but I believe applies to all forms of diversity.
3. Boards should be – primarily – strategic
It can be dangerous when Boards get involved in the nitty gritty. Granted if the Board had skills and connections which can directly benefit the organisation you’d be daft not to avail yourself, but this needs to be underpinned by a clear understanding of respective roles and responsibilities otherwise you risk the Board getting into micro-management and failing to deliver its key functions.
So let’s seek funds where ever we can – and that should involve the Board. One the the key fundraising tips I picked up (from John Nickson, former Director of Development at Tate) was to be a donor yourself. Giving helps you understand donors, and if you don’t support the charity you’re seeking funds for – why should anyone else put their hands in their pocket?
But let’s remember, there are other – equally if not more – important things that we need from our Boards.