Bad news Boards

Last year, Kate Larsen asked our sector to imagine a radically different structure for its arts Boards – or a future without them entirely. Here, she shares the results of a national survey into how those Boards fail.

The suggestion that Australian arts organisations should reset (or even remove) their Boards has clearly struck a nerve.

Within days of my provocation at the 2021 Reset Conference, I was inundated with responses from all over the world. This included hundreds of social media posts, pages of emails and dozens of interviews that acted both as an overwhelming affirmation of the proposal and a depressing indictment of the state of the sector and the broken governance models we’re forced to work within.

In preparation for my Bundanon residency on the topic, I launched a national survey that asked you to share more of your experiences of being on, employed or contracted by, or reporting to arts, cultural or not-for-profit organisations governed by volunteer Boards. Nearly 300 people completed the survey, including current and former Board members, CEOs, employees, contractors, artists and more.

Faint (and contradictory) praise

Overall, Boards were seen to be strongest when acting as positive ambassadors for their organisations. However, strongest in this context does not equate to strong – with 58% of Board members not attending organisation events and 56% lacking a clear understanding or ability to speak about or on behalf of their organisations – surely, both essential qualities for those in an ambassadorial role.

The 2020 Arts and Culture Governance Report reported similarly contradictory results. Eight of the nine key findings were as dispiriting as they were familiar, with the single positive finding reporting that 94% of Board members enjoyed their roles and 88% understood their responsibilities. However, the majority of those Board members also admitted to never being properly inducted or trained, nor reflecting on or improving their skills or performance. In which case, how could they possibly understand the responsibilities they purport to enjoy and understand?

Other strengths identified by survey respondents were Boards’ abilities to carry out their roles appropriately and contribute to positive and productive Board and operational cultures – which sounds great until we note that only 19% do so most of the time.

How low are our expectations of our Boards if these results are the best we can hope for?

Show us the money. PLEASE.

No-one will be surprised that Boards were seen to be weakest in contributing to their organisations’ financial sustainability – be that through fundraising, soliciting donations, sharing personal contacts or becoming donors themselves. Unfortunately, the survey also identified this as the single biggest area their organisations need most assistance.

Of course, this is not to say that everyone needs to donate. A strict ‘give, get or get out’ policy often creates a barrier to access and is antithetical to the need to increase Board diversity in organisations of all types, locations and sizes.

However, I can count on one hand the number of Boards I’ve worked with who have taken up the discussion with any rigour – let alone been moved to action. More often, I am met with well-meaning confusion or lack of capacity, disinterest in finding or growing that capacity, or resentment (even hostility) that the time Board members donate to their organisations (primarily through preparing for and participating in meetings) isn’t the gift those organisations need.

Which leaves us with the irony that the things we most need from our Boards are the same things Board members have least interest in or willingness to provide. Indeed, according to the survey, 58% don’t understand what their organisations need from them at all.

Other things Boards are bad at

Boards were also seen to be ineffective in the areas of data, research and impact management. In part, perhaps, because not all Boards consider this work to be part of their remit. Indeed, impact measurement is one of arts management’s elusive aspirations. Everyone knows we need it (in fact, we’re pretty sure we know what it will say) but hardly anyone has the resources to track a project’s outcomes after it ends (which is why some Boards take it on).

These were closely followed by failings in access and diversity – both in terms of Board representation and within the organisations they oversee. In spite of increasing rhetoric, changing community and funder expectations, Boards aren’t yet seen to be walking the talk about cultural safety, increasing representation and centering First Nations peoples and culture.

Read: 7 steps to building the perfect arts Board

People management was another big issue, particularly in the context of current sector-wide burnout, staff shortages and ‘post’-COVID exhaustion, with Boards failing to effectively support or supervise their CEOs, model a productive and positive organisational culture, or meet their duties of care to staff and volunteers.

Yes, it’s been a difficult few years for everybody, including Board members. But at a time when most organisations needed more from our Boards, we saw many step back instead of up, or ask more of their CEOs as if oblivious to their operating context – perhaps forgetting that duty of care is enhanced during times of crisis, not diminished.

Boards also returned low scores in business and financial planning, ethical and timely decision making, advocacy and audience development.

Things Boards are better at

In addition to the 50% of Board members doing a good job as ambassadors, Boards were generally seen as effective in the familiar governance areas of Strategic Planning, oversight and compliance, policies, risk management (though not necessarily crisis management, unfortunately) and visioning.

However, organisations said these were some of the areas they actually need least assistance, second only to Board members straying out of their lane to provide artistic, program, project or service ideas. More than half (54%) said this sort of detailed Board involvement in operations and programs is an ongoing issue.

Interestingly, in spite of recent debate about artistic representation on Boards (or lack thereof), only 31% reported this as an issue. It seems there are a lot of people with a lot of passion on either side of this divisive debate, but very little consensus. Some insist on the importance of professional expertise, and often seem incredulous that artists can provide any of those skills in addition to artform representation. Others make a case for artist-only Boards. The one point of consistency is that no-one wants arts Boards without any artistic representation at all.

A provocation, disclaimer and challenge

Does this mean Boards are concentrating their efforts outside of what their organisations need? Where those organisations do need assistance, is it fair to assume a Board should provide it? If not, is legislative requirement reason enough to need a Board at all?

It is challenging to critique a failing system while not offending or dismissing the people within it, though that is certainly not my intent. Australian arts governance is built and reliant upon extraordinary acts of generosity, and I am perpetually in awe of the time, dedication and passion of its volunteer Board members – many of whom do an extraordinary job within the parameters they’ve got. I am particularly grateful to those who shared their time and thoughtfulness (and, in many cases, trauma) to contribute to the survey findings, which will continue to inform ongoing work in this area.

If our Boards and board members are failing, it’s because they’re being set up to fail. In most cases, the causes of this board dysfunction can be linked to the failings of the governance model itself. So yes, we need to find ways to make the best of this broken model. But also reimagine what we could achieve if unconstrained by legal or constitutional ties.

Kate Larsen (she/her) is a writer, arts and cultural consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. @katelarsenkeys.