What is a Board?
For an incorporated non-profit organization, a board is a group of volunteers who agree to take on the governance of and responsibility for a given organization. With the governance structure of incorporated non-profits, boards have ultimate legal authority over any persons working for the organization. Officially, they are your boss.
In the best-case scenario, a board is essentially a dedicated community of people (often non-artists) who want to help support the work of artists without financial compensation in return.
Why Work with a Board?
- It is a legal requirement for any incorporated organization.
- The volunteer board members become representatives of the organization and can broaden your network of support, amplifying connections with various communities.
- Individual board members may bring valuable skills to the organization (e.g. Marketing and Publicity, accounting, education, or legal skills for which the organization does not need to pay).
- Board members can provide free, hands-on support for events, activities, applications, and so forth.
- If people have agreed to donate their time to your organization, that probably means that they believe in you and what your company is doing, and that feels good!
- Members can contribute diverse perspectives regarding the direction of the organization, asking useful questions, providing advice, etc.
- They can offer important accountability requirements to the people in charge of the day-to-day operations of the organization.
- Boards require you to relinquish into their hands ultimate decision-making responsibilities for the organization. If it comes to it, they can “fire” you.
- Working with a board and activating an individual board member’s skills requires time, patience, and strong people skills.
- Sometimes, the board members responsible for decision-making do not work in the arts sector, and as a result, they may not understand the nuances and realities of the industry.
- As volunteers, the time, resources, and overall engagement they can offer you is most likely limited.
What Kind of Board are You Looking For?
The following list of terms is colloquial and unofficial, but it can help you when thinking about who to approach and select to be a part of your board.
If you are a young, small, recently incorporated organization, it is important to consider recruiting board members with whom you have a personal connection. If your board members are invested in the people who make-up the company (as opposed to the organization as a separate entity from you), then they will be more supportive as you learn and grow through the process of working with a board, and they will be more patient when mistakes are made (and they will be made). These people may not offer as much expert, hands-on support, but you can fulfill the necessary legal requirements without demanding too much (of their or your) time while you gain experience with all the requirements of incorporation.
This is a style of board in which members contribute their knowledge, skills, and time to help with the practical needs of the organization, essentially serving as un-paid staff (e.g. a marketing specialist writing content for the website or press release, or a professional educator helping to craft an accompanying curriculum package for teachers attending a performance with their classes). This type of board is useful for small organizations to help accomplish tasks while financial resources are limited. Keep in mind that as board members, they are volunteers, so you must be realistic about what they can accomplish for you with their available, donated time.
Once the organization grows larger, it is important that the board focuses on "bigger-picture" strategic goals and the health of the organization (e.g. succession planning and new hiring of key leadership positions; maintenance of by-laws and internal policies; long-term strategic planning; etc.). At this stage, it becomes important that the board have more of an arms-length relationship with the organization’s leadership to ensure transparent, public accountability and an honest checking of the leadership’s authority.
Ideally, you should think about having a combination of all three types of board to ensure that you have personal support in your growth as an arts leader, hands-on help for getting things done, and a strong strategic approach to the overall health and functioning of the organization. It is up to you to decide at which point in your organization's growth that you need to emphasize a particular approach to your board.
Who Do You Want on Your Board?
Board recruitment can be a challenging mix of seeking out people with specific skill sets, encouraging participation from enthusiastic volunteers, and building a cohesive team to advance your organization’s goals. It is important to keep in mind that it is a team that will be working together on your organization’s behalf; not a drawer full of tools with specific uses. As volunteers, the pleasure and satisfaction board members receive from being a part of the organization can be greatly impacted by who it is they are working alongside. The following are some traditional skill-sets sought when creating a board of directors, but the list is not exhaustive, and you should consider what your organization’s goals are, and who would best help you to achieve them:
- Lawyer: They can be useful when it comes to creating and understanding the language of by-laws, government administrative requirements, and any other legal issues that come up for your organization. There are many different kinds of lawyers, so keep in mind the nature of the help you might want them to provide.
- Educator: They can be useful when considering work connected with youth or education in general. They can provide useful contacts within various boards of education.
- Marketing Specialist: They can provide support for branding, marketing campaigns, online or print content, and/or additional marketing support for any fundraising events the board may host.
- Accountant: They can help you understand the financial aspects of the organization as government reporting requires a stringent tracking of money (especially if the organization is a charity). An accountant can also provide support in communicating the financial position of the organization to the rest of the board during board meetings.
- Artist: It is important to consider having an artist on the board who can offer an educated perspective of the arts industry during board conversations. This can be important considering that a board of directors has ultimate decision-making authority, and an artist’s perspective and vote could be useful in informing those decisions.
- Community Stakeholders: If your organization is serving a specific geographic area or demographic group, then it could be important to have representatives from those communities on your board. They can offer valuable perspectives on the needs of a specific community, as well as provide connections to networks within specific communities.
- Events Specialist: It can be useful to have someone on your board who has experience planning events if your organization is undertaking fundraising event at any point. Fundraisers can be very challenging to organize so that they are worth the time and resources – having someone who is experienced and enjoys this kind of work can be the difference between making a successful event or draining the resources of the organization.
Due to the nature of a board’s executive power, it is recommended that you create a thorough vetting and interview process when recruiting new board members. When asking someone to volunteer their time and perhaps financial resources toward your organization, it is important to have a clear conversation about expectations in regard to time, skills, money, and access to personal networks that you will be asking of them. Likewise, they need an opportunity to voice their expectations about their role in your organization and the benefits for them. Check out this Board Recruitment Process resource to start thinking about the best ways to organize your board.
Potential board members can be found in all kinds of places – your audience, personal networks, board match events, other boards, and so on. The younger your organization is, the more important a personal connection may be when seeking new board recruits.
Resources for Boards:
Toronto Arts Foundation Creative Champions Network is a resource hub for arts board members that covers topics such as Human Resources, Strategic Planning, Succession Planning, and more. They also offer a workshop and speaker series specifically for board members.
Check out these excellent toolkits for administrators, including a non-profit board tracker, nominations assessor, and board experience aggregator, created by Paul Gravett Consulting.