7 steps to building the perfect arts board

A strong Board can be essential to a flourishing arts organisation. But what does that look like and how can you get there?
a close up of a chessboard with approximately 12 pieces on it

The subject of good governance (and what it looks like) is high on the list of arts leaders worth their salt. Oversight from a strong Board has profound effect for many non-profit arts companies when key decisions are made.

So whether you’re for-profit or non-profit, governed by a Board or a Management Committee, these top tips on building a good arts Board are essential reading.

1. YOUR CONSTITUTION MATTERS

Let’s be honest, any epic document filled with arcane legal language from a bygone era is not the most compelling read. But as COVID has reminded us here in Australia – Constitutions matter!

Whether you’re our federal government or a not-for-profit arts organisation, your Constitution is the legal agreement between all company parties outlining its purpose and activities. So if it’s gathering dust at the back of the shelf, it’s time to pull it forward.

According to arts and non-profit sector consultant David Fishel, author of The Book of the Board, an arts organisation’s Constitution should provide clear instruction on the Board’s role and responsibilities. It’s therefore important that your Constitution is well designed to maintain robust Board structures and appointments.

Fishel advises to, ‘make sure your Constitution supports building a good Board. It should outline fixed terms for board members, and include some power of co-option* to select Board members, in addition to having nominated or elected Board members.’

2. MAKE PROFESSIONAL BOARD APPOINTMENTS

The question of choosing the right people is another important area, and this can be especially tough for those at the smaller end. Not-for-profit arts Boards are voluntary positions, so how can you best attract a committed team with the right skills for your needs?

Fishel suggests taking the same professional approach you would for other staff appointments.

He said new Board members should be selected ‘from a quality shortlist, rather than just tapping individuals on the shoulder’. He encourages arts CEOs to ‘work closely with their Board Chair, to engage individual board members productively and get the most out of them.’

Ideally, Fishel says, the Board should collectively reflect ‘a reasonable level of previous Board or committee experience,’ and be people with ‘time to contribute and no obvious conflicts of interest’.

Read: Embracing risk aids good governance: advice for Boards and arts workers

For ex-Melbourne Theatre Company General Manager (1994 – 2012) and author of The A-Z of Arts Management, Ann Tonks, it’s important that arts managers and/or existing Board members write up expressions of interest when recruiting.

‘Have a clear statement about what you’re looking for,’ Tonks advised. ‘You should be able to send out a position description including your expectations to prospective Board members. Then open the door as wide as possible to see who’s out there – which means exploring everyone’s networks, including those of the CEO, and advertising publicly, via ProBono or Women on Boards for example, if your networks aren’t enough.’

Fishel emphasises that choosing Board members wisely from the start is vital because in many ways, they hold great power.

‘Remember that the board are your employers,’ he said. ‘So on matters of Board recruitment, they have the final say (as do the members, if your organisation has members). But the arts manager should be able to add value, make suggestions, and challenge the thinking of their Board in these areas.’

3. FIND THE RIGHT SKILLS FOR THE RIGHT JOB

One big advantage of having a Board is the new skills they can bring to the fold.

Tonks believes that ideally, Board members should bring ‘skill or knowledge that’s going to be particularly useful for the company’, but also emphasises they must show ‘fiscal & strategic understanding… to read financial statements and judge whether an organisation is achieving its mission’.

‘Remember that the board are your employers.’

David Fishel, author of The Book of the Board

Fishel agrees, saying Board members should bring with them ‘knowledge and experience that will add value’, but adds that effective Board members are often ‘intelligent all-rounders, rather than specialists who only talk to their specialism’.

So, when planning your Board’s formation think carefully about the skills you need for each role (the Chair, Treasurer and Secretary for example), but don’t let a narrow focus on specialty skills discount other passionate all-rounders who show capacity for strategic thought.

4. WELCOME YOUR NEW PEOPLE

Once you’ve made those new appointments, make them feel welcome!

We all know the feeling of last-minute meetings and speedy hellos, but when it comes to Board protocol, a considerate approach to orienting new people is the best way to go.

Fishel sees ‘a structured Board recruitment and induction policy,’ as an essential part of healthy Board functioning.

So why not have a welcome pack and orientation meetings for new recruits? As well as ensuring they know exactly what’s on store, it’s a great way to build rapport and set relationships up on their best foot.

A Board induction might guide new members through the company’s Constitution and outline their legal responsibilities as part of the governance team. It could also allow them the chance to ask questions and meet organisation staff. If it’s a dynamic and social experience, it will mark their contributions as meaningful right from the start.

5. BE AVAILABLE AND BE INTERESTED

On that note, whether you’re an arts manager or a board member, it’s important to show genuine interest in each other, but also in what you’re there for – to make great art happen!

Executive Director of The Chamber of Culture and the Arts WA Shelagh Magadza believes a big part of a Board’s role is about being passionate advocates for their company and artforms.

‘It’s important to acknowledge that arts Board members are volunteers who give their time and skills to supporting our sector,’ she said. ‘As they come from a range of personal and professional backgrounds it’s also crucial that they actively advocate for their organisations and for the sector outside of the boardroom.’

Tonks agreed, saying that ‘the capacity and willingness to be available for more than just going to board meetings’, is among her top tips for ideal board candidates.

6. BUILD HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

Once Board members have settled in, Fishel believes the onus is on the arts managers to empower them to do great work by building robust relationships based on transparency and communication.

‘You as the arts manager need to do a good job by keeping the board well informed and providing them with the information they need,’ he said. From there, healthy relationships can grow.

Fishel also says it’s vital that arts managers build trust by offering their Boards ‘the right information at the right time, and the right questions and agenda items that encourage strategic discussion.’

Read: How to make your board work for you

For Magadza, healthy relationships between senior staff and Boards include understanding the different forms leadership can take.

‘I’ve come to realise the concept of co-leadership is very important here,’ she said.

‘Our society is more used to the single person hierarchies, but Boards need to understand the challenges of co-leadership, and should support their senior staff to ensure it works well.

‘Chamber research has shown how much pressure our leadership is currently under, and Boards need to be cognisant of these stresses. Arts organisations often have a co-leadership model that balances artistic and executive functions, so Board members need to be able to approach discussions and decisions in ways that can give equal consideration to both those creative and business issues,’ she said.

7. COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION

And here’s the big one – communication!

As already mentioned, healthy Board relationships are about clear and consistent communication, because when people stop talking and information isn’t shared, things can go sour.

Arts managers and Board members alike must communicate effectively to keep their Boards functioning well. But discussions can get heated, and emotions can run hot. So how are those difficult debates managed best?(especially when for the arts manager they’re debating their employers!).

Fishel says it can be a tricky area, but for arts managers the lines are quite clear.

‘For the arts manager it’s more about them contributing to Board discussions, rather than challenging Board thinking,’ he said.

‘But if the Board discussion is heading in a direction that is clearly problematic for the arts manager, then the manager earns the right to challenge first by building trust, both within the Boardroom and on the job. Then, if you’re doing your job well, you’re on much safer ground to challenge thinking [of your Board], as long as you do that respectfully.’

Tonks agrees, observing that Board members and arts managers with ‘the capacity to listen’ are often the most effective contributors.

So whether you’re a new arts Board recruit or a senior arts executive, there’s a lot more to it than spreadsheets and meets, and whichever side of the fence you’re on, Board matters need proper attention to keep it all on track.

* The term co-option in this context is when Board members can approach and appoint new board members outside of formal voting processes that take place at board AGMs.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

Unlock Padlock Icon

Support us to keep providing
Arts news and jobs

Become a member and unlock access to jobs and all premium articles and news content