but someone has to do it.
Arts Patrons do more than buy art and season tickets to art stuff, although we do a lot of that too. Being an arts patron means fully supporting the art form and the artists. Patrons take on some responsibility for the survival and growth at an art form, the artists and the presenting institutions. This means that at some point, you will be asked to serve on the board of a non-profit organization. It is an honor to be asked. If you are not ready to put in the work, accept that honor and decline. Board membership comes with a great deal of responsibility, and it is work!
People that have a passion for an art form and a particular institution typically make good non-profit board members. That’s not a surprise since they tend to know a lot about the art and the organization already. They should also bring their own knowledge and expertise about the organization’s purpose and network. Just as important, new board members will bring a contagious excitement with them to board meetings. Passionate new board members can breathe new life into a nonprofit board. Board recruiters should make sure new board members understand that serving on the board comes with important responsibilities and to help them understand what those responsibilities are so that the new board member can quickly participate in the most helpful ways.
The board’s most important duty is to hire a competent Executive Director and set compensation for the position. This duty is very important because of the Executive Director or CEO has a key role as the primary communicator between the board and management. Important qualities for the Executive Director or CEO are trust, respect, and a willingness to have a good working relationship with the board chair and executive staff.
While that is most important, you won’t hire an Executive Director every year. Maybe not even every ten years. Fund raising happens all year long and all of the time. All board members have to be fund raisers for the organization. Board members typically know professional networks that can help to grow the non-profit financially. Often, that is why someone is approached to serve on a board of directors. It’s helpful for board members to learn how to tell stories that led to the success of the organization. A prepared, two-minute elevator speech is very useful in sharing the organization’s purpose. Board members should make every effort to attend public fundraisers and encourage their friends to attend. At least annually, board members should make a personal financial contribution to the organization. This is usually an expectation/requirement and comes with a specific minimum dollar amount. That dollar amount will be based on the size, mission, and budget of the organization. The range can be anywhere from $1500 to $150,000. Remember, you are a patron. Your financial support rightly is expected.
Another key function of the board is financial management. Board members need to learn how to read and interpret financial statements so they can be good stewards of the organization’s funds. This includes reviewing and approving budgets to protect the organization’s assets. Board members will approve major organizational decisions including planning for programs and related expenditures. Working cooperatively with management, board members will need to communicate their plans and any progress to management and other stakeholders.
Much of the work that board members do is related to determining, guiding and directing the mission of the organization. Part of that work requires working with management and making sure the organization has the resources to advance the mission.
Board members should have some insight into the industry trends. They will need to monitor and communicate those trends to management and membership. While keeping a pulse on industry activity, board members need to oversee the day-to-day operations and have foresight in planning programs and operations.
Spreading the word about the organization helps it grow and flourish. Board members are the frontline people who publicly advocate for the non-profit’s mission. This may includes public relations and interacting or interviewing with media.
There is much to learn. Board members need to become acquainted with Robert’s Rules of Order. Recruitment needs to be a continual process to ensure that the board’s seats remain full and that new members have the full benefit of orientation and membership to provide for continuity.
Board members should be aware that most of the board’s work is done in committees. There isn’t time for the board to have lengthy discussions or get involved in researching issues in detail. Every board member should serve on a committee to steer the committee towards the information that the board needs. Committees will be structured with a chair, and possibly a co-chair, and involve input from all committee members. Committees give full recommendations and results to the full board and make themselves available to answer questions about their findings.
While the board secretary bears the main responsibility for preparing minutes and agendas, everyone the board has a responsibility to make sure they are reported accurately. Accurate documentation protects the organization from potential legal issues. Board members do have legal responsibilities and potentially some liability for the organizations activities. In fact, there is insurance for executive and board member potential liabilities. When deciding whether to accept a board position, you’ll want to make sure the organization carries sufficient Directors and Officers Liability Insurance. The board’s oversight of an organization is serious stuff.
Board members should be active in the group’s succession planning. Board members almost always leave suddenly; death, family obligations, career demands, et cetera. Ongoing long-range planning and continual recruitment are effective ways to ensure the board’s continuity.
There’s no need for new board members to feel overwhelmed by their duties. The rest of the board should help them ease into the position over time. Fellow board members can help them along by mentoring them and helping them find the best ways to use their talents and abilities towards the goals of the organization.
Being asked to serve on a board whose mission you believe in is undoubtedly an honor and, if you would be a patron, you should accept if at all possible. It is serious business and a lot of work though, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. If you’re not up to it, it’s probably best that you just say, “thank you”, write a check and continue as an enthusiastic consumer. Patron life is not for everyone.
W Skeet Jiggetts