The five faux essentials to a successful nonprofit, and the necessity of boards

October 24, 2011

A new piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review argues that there are five things considered essential to the success of nonprofits that are, in fact, wastes of time. The author is wrong about every one of them (Don’t use volunteers? Skip social media?) but he’s especially wrong about Boards of Directors, of which he says,

There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can’t generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success...

I started thinking about this in connection with theaters when I chatted last week with the chair of a local theater Board, who was extolling the virtues of the master-carpenter Board member who’d built the theater and the advertising-executive Board member who’d created its awareness campaign. “We started out with all attorneys and CPAs,” he said, “and then we figured out that we needed people who could actually do something useful.”

Very funny, and he’s right, of course, that Boards should include a diversity of skills. But here’s the deal: if you regard any member of your Board as unable to do something useful, or the Board as a whole as a waste of time, that means you’re wasting your Board. These volunteers who can represent your performance group to the wider community, and who’ve pledged to help you secure the resources you need to go on performing, are absolutely essential to your success. Does anyone imagine Chicago Shakespeare would have a space on Navy Pier without its Board’s efforts and connections? Or that TimeLine would be raking in the accolades without a group of people devoted to providing the infrastructure for the company’s excellent work? There are dozens of other examples, and very few counter-examples–because the companies with lousy Boards simply aren’t around anymore.

Yes, of course you have to train them–no one is born knowing how to be a nonprofit Board member, and you can’t just say, “Raise money” and leave them to their own devices. But training them is remarkably easy–most Board members, after all, want to do a great job–and if you think you don’t have the expertise to do it yourself, ask the Arts Work Fund for a grant to bring in a trainer. (I have nothing to gain from giving this advice: though I do this kind of work, I don’t do it for theater or dance companies.) Every member of your Board can do something useful; it’s your job (Managing/Artistic Director) to make sure they know what it is and how they’re supposed to do it.

Some years ago the Whitney Museum received a remarkable gift from its Board of Directors: a significant painting from each of their private collections. I was praising Boards to a skeptical theater manager using this particular example, and she said, “Why didn’t I think of that? We’ll just run downstairs and haul out our Monets.” But whether your Board is big money or just big effort, it’s the shoulders you're standing on to reach the stage.

So: have you hugged your Board today?