May 30, 2005

The Tipping Point in Arts Board Development

Have you ever encountered an “effective” board of directors for a nonprofit arts organization? What does effectiveness look like? From staff, artists and burned-out current board members you’ll often hear descriptions like “they need to show up to meetings on time and write checks” and “they need to give money, get money or get-off the board (give, get or get-off). You’ll find that these are the hidden agendas that build into passive aggressive behavior as frustration builds when new board members don’t “get it”.

Sustainable arts organizations are about PEOPLE who partake in the ART, and if you don’t have people you eventually don’t have art – despite the business model of contributed income. Boards are alive, dynamic, organic, and evolving. Not all board members need to be good at everything but they do need to make a contribution to the organization, which is not always financial. STRATEGIC PLANNING is the essential first step in building a road map for your organization’s vision of sustainability. Only then can you identify the resources, not always financial, that each board member needs to bring to the table to be effective.

When I presented the 2004 Board Leadership Training program at Business Arts Council in San Francisco the room was filled with curious business folks who wanted to join boards, a few that were already on boards, and also a handful of arts managers mixed in to the group. An interesting dynamic developed – the arts managers were talkative, frustrated, outspoken and clear that their boards are never effective because they don’t know how to raise money – which was their only purpose. Over the course of the three-part training series the business folks got quieter and developed an expression of fear, feelings of shame and overall disbelief as the series progressed. This was their first introduction to the leadership of arts nonprofits and it was shocking.

Building a team that can effectively pursue the strategic goals begins with building a matrix of leadership characteristics. Usually these descriptors include - expertise, industry, community and then the challenging and often artificial mix of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, age, and social-economic representation. Only a small percentage of arts organizations get to this matrix step and those that do often sit around and wonder, "who are these people and where are we going to 'find' them”, and “if our current board members aren’t effective, how are we going to deal with new ones?”

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explores three personality types that are essential for reaching out to people: Connectors, Mavens and Salesperson. These three categories are the important missing layer in the traditional board development matrix. Regardless of their skills, gender, industry or whatever fit they make in the board’s matrix, it is essential that each board member be at least one of these types.

Connectors: These are folks who naturally build links, networks and connections between individuals and groups.

Mavens: In the best sense of the term these are people who love to gather practical information and share it with others.

Salespeople: Folks who love to sell because they are passionate about people and your artistic product.

These personality types are enjoy people and effectively build community. If engaged with your strategic vision these thought leaders can influence individuals and organizations who may eventually become audience members, contributors, collaborators, sponsors, artists and ultimately your best advocates. Identifying and accessing these people begins with board and staff brainstorming around who they know, have read about in the paper, have seen at work or in their social settings, that fit into the Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople personality types and have the skills that are identified in the strategic plan’s leadership matrix.