Tag Archives: Board governance

Interviewing for the big job

Michael Kaiser’s recent article in the Huffington Post got me thinking about what skills we need to make sure the future leaders of our arts organizations have; how can we help them be prepared to take the reins?  Then last week a friend asked for advice on interviewing for her first Executive Director position.  I’ve talked through this process with other friends over the years but this is the first time I’ve written it all down.  Much of this advice is applicable to the second round of interviews, but it is all good to think about even before your first talk with your potential new artistic home.  I hope this gives some framework to what I feel is important knowledge for an incoming ED/MD to have.

Interviewing for the job of Executive or Managing Director

Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you; you need to make sure you go into any ED or MD position with your eyes wide open. They may not have everything in formal written form, but what they do have will give you a good idea of the infrastructure you would be jumping into.

  1. Most recent two years’ financial reports (Income Statement vs. Budget, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow) … what is their revenue split between earned & contributed?  Do they have consistent earned revenue or have their ticket/event sales been erratic?  Within contributed, how much is in grants, corporate, government, and individual?  Are funds from a capital campaign artificially inflating their Balance Sheet or are they making the numbers work on the operating side in a straightforward manner?
  2. Current budget (and cash flow projections for the fiscal year if they have them; it would be very helpful to know how cyclical their cash flow is and what they currently do when faced with cash troughs)
  3. Latest audit
  4. Current Strategic Plan
  5. Development and Marketing plans for the current year.  What has been their approach to marketing, both event and institutional?  Do they see any issues with their current branding or brand awareness? (or do you?)
  6. If they don’t have a formal written development plan, then you’ll need to ask if they have any special campaigns going on right now or planned in the near future (is there a balloon debt they are going to need to retire in the next two years?  Do they have their hearts set on an endowment?  That sort of thing.)  What is the average individual gift? ($200k in $50 increments takes a whole heck of a lot of time & work!)  What is their current rate of retention for patrons and donors (churn) year over year?
  7. Ask about their Board structure: number of Directors, term limits, standing committees, how active are they?  Do they have a formal Board Promise or a specific give & get?  How much of the annual fundraising comes from the Board?  What kind of pipeline do they have for future Board members?  What will be your role in cultivating new members?  What is the term for the Board Chair? (will you be training a new Board Chair as you are learning the ropes yourself?)  What is the Board orientation process?
  8. Do the ED and AD report directly to the Board?  Are both leaders voting members of the Board?  What evaluation process do they have for the executive leadership?
  9. How big is the staff and how much is the Board a “working” board?  What about performance evaluations for the rest of the staff?

Be ready to talk about your experience with fundraising A LOT.  Be sure to have examples demonstrating your comfort level with engaging folks of all backgrounds in conversation and communicating the mission.  Be ready, if asked, to give feedback on their current marketing messages & materials.  Also, give thought to where you would want to focus when you first join the team:

  • Does their budget process need to be revamped? (are they consistently coming in under projections?  Do they have an accumulated deficit?)
  • Is there a segment of their audience that needs more attention?  Have their communications been consistent?  Have they become stale?
  • Do they need to go into a strong Board development phase?
  • What role does the AD currently play in fundraising and how can you use her/his “stardust” to the greatest impact?

Do your homework and you will know if you and the organization are the right fit.  You will also show your potential employers that you are serious about the commitment you will all be making to each other if a job is offered and accepted.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the next generation of arts leaders, if you are an emerging leader and you see items in this list that confuse you or areas in which you know you need more experience, start now.  Join a non-profit Board to see things from the other side.  Take fundraising and/or marketing courses.  Take a look at the Nonprofit Finance Fund and BoardSource for help in beefing up your financial and Board relations understanding (also, read Governance as Leadership.  Really.  Do it now.).  The great thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you get to be involved in every facet of the administrative side of the business.  The hard thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you need to be familiar and comfortable with every facet of the administrative side of the business.

Please continue this conversation in the comments below!


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Is your ideal customer on your Board?

I’ve been thinking more about this ideal customer idea and how it relates to the non-profit arts.  We actually have an advantage over for-profit ventures, we could have our ideal customer as a key advisor.  We could have them on our Board.  But, do we?  We spend so much time thinking about what slots we need to fill on the board: deep pockets, corporate contacts, fundraising experience, marketing expertise, finance, real estate, law.  What about an ideal customer?

Do any of y’all have someone on your board that could be the poster child for your company’s ideal customer?  If so, are you talking to them about what brought them to you & what keeps them coming back?  Are you picking their brain on a regular basis about where they get their information and how they share it?  If you don’t have this person on the Board, do you know someone in your patron base you should be courting?

Let me know your thoughts on this!


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Everyone is on the team, or, Marketing is not a dirty word

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m reading The Referral Engine by John Jantsch (and LOVING it).  The book is about how to build a system that gets your company consistently talked about and recommended by all who come in contact with it.  In the theatre we don’t often think about our patrons as “referring” others to us, but that is exactly what they are (or should be) doing and this book is just as applicable to our work as it is to a general contractor.  I’ll probably post a few notes relating back to this book, but this first one is prompted by something Jantsch talks about on page 19 (yep, it gets good early).  Here’s the direct quote:

Teaching every new employee everything you can about your organization’s marketing strategy, marketing plan, positioning, messaging, ideal customer, products, services, and brand attributes just makes sense when it comes to creating ambassadors for the organization…

… Smart companies make sure every employee understands how to spot an ideal customer, how to properly introduce the company’s story, and how to spot trigger phrases prospective customers use, and clues they give, that mark them as potential ideal customers, even if selling isn’t a part of that employee’s job description.

This basic training should be implemented at the outset and consistently and repeatedly reinforced.

This should be taken even further within an arts organization.  Not only should this information be communicated to employees, it should be part of the orientation for the board, our artists and technicians, and all volunteers.  In fact, I propose that every time Jantsch uses the word “staff” or “employee” throughout the book, we should automatically include board, artists, technicians, and volunteers.  We need to be harnessing the power of everyone that contributes to our organization.

I know what you are thinking, “What actor/designer/carpenter/usher is going to take time to read our marketing plan?”  The answer is, they won’t.  So, it is our job to get this information to them in a simple, engaging, easy-to-spread way and to give it to them in bite-sized pieces over time.  Here are some ideas, please share your own in the comments:

  • Find your “one word” (from Dave Charest) and use it to sharpen everyone’s focus
  • At the initial orientation (and in the information packet you should be providing already) include a section about marketing:  what’s your org’s voice? where are you maintaining a presence (online and off)? who is your ideal customer?
  • Make everyone’s role in marketing EXPLICIT.  Most people can’t take hints.  Tell them straight-out that they are the front lines of communication for the organization and that it is essential that they share their knowledge and love of the company.
  • Provide everyone with timely and consistent updates on how the marketing strategy is going.  You are probably already providing a financial “dashboard” to the board at each meeting.  It is time to do the same for marketing, but don’t save it just for the board!  Let your staff, artists, technicians, and volunteers know exactly what is happening with your most important measures (ticket sales, Facebook friends, email click-throughs, promotion redemptions, re-tweets, blog mentions, Google ranking, etc.)  Pick 4 things you are going to track and have specific goals that you can communicate your progress on clearly and consistently.
  • Highlight folks in the organization that are going the extra mile to spread the word.  We already do this for our major donors, it is time recognize the evangelists in our organization at the same level.

Marketing is not a dirty word, it is the life blood of engaging folks in our organizations.  It isn’t about the hard sell, it isn’t about interruption and pushing.  It is about communication and desire fulfillment.  How we sell the idea of marketing to our potential evangelists is as important to our success as how well we sell tickets.  Go forth and market!


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Give and Get, vital to the board promise for any theatre’s board of directors

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the role of a board member within a theatre company’s board of directors and how the Board Promise successfully (or not) communicates that role.  In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, I am a HUGE supporter of including a formal, specific dollar amount within the board promise as a “Give and Get.”

Most theatres refer to this a give or get, but I think the and is the most important part of the phrase.  It may help my budgeting and ease the cash flow to know that you, as a board member, will be writing a $3,000 check to cover your financial responsibility.  However, it is actually much more useful to the theatre in the long run to get your friends to buy tickets to the productions and become invested in our future; get your company to sponsor a show, buy a table sponsorship at an event, or feature the theatre on your intranet; get your book club, mom’s group, Rotary Club, Toastmaster’s club, or any other to host a group at a show and have a networking reception before or after.

I think the problem is clear and the solution is also a vote in favor of a formal Give and Get.  The aversion most boards and organizational leadership have to the concrete number lies in the confusion around it’s purpose.  They say the board members will be scared off.  A lot of the responsibility for this confusion lies with the staff and leadership of the organization.  We spend so much time focusing on the board’s role as fundraisers that we completely neglect their role as marketers.  (why do you think it is that so many boards have nominal marketing committees that never find their feet?  It is because we don’t teach the board to market the way we do to fundraise.)

Yes, we need the board promise to state that the financial contribution of each board member needs to be one of the top philanthropic donations for the year (I like top three).  But, we need to get better at communicating (and tracking) the work the board members can do regarding marketing.  We can’t turn people into donors without getting them invested in our work.  Whether or not a member of the board can write a large check, their main duty is to evangelize for the company.  I would rather have a member without deep pockets who spreads our mission far and wide than someone who writes a big check once a year and never tells a soul about our work.  Of course, it is nice to have well-resourced evangelists, too!

What are you doing with your board?

ADDENDUM:  Just read this great article Chicago Business (powered by Crain’s) on why executive choose to (0r not to) join a board.


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I’m a little tired of hearing about the “Arts Leadership Void”

When I started reading this article from Charles McNulty in The Los Angeles Times, I was more than a little afraid that it was yet another cry of hopelessness around this seeming lack of anyone fit to fill the shoes of the geniuses that began the regional theatre movement.  (It turned out to be a wonderfully written article with a lot of things to think about, in fact, I will probably refer back to it again tomorrow.  But the first paragraph set me off and I feel the need to voice my thoughts.)  Don’t get me wrong, the founders of our major (and some minor) regional theatres across the nation deserve the praise that they receive; they cut a new path and created a new way to produce theatre.  Many of us owe our ability to pay our bills through work in the theatre to these trailblazers.

However, to say that no one is ready to take the reins, or that those who are out there are woefully unskilled or under-qualified for the job is ludicrous.  Look around (you don’t have to look too hard).  We are the artistic directors, associate artistic directors and managing directors at small and midsize theatres; we are the regional theatre directors working at your theatres, or your peer theatres, for over a decade; we are the marketing and development directors within your own organizations who volunteer their time to serve on the boards of other nonprofits.  We are here and we are more qualified than you think.  Those years at smaller organizations have given us concrete knowledge of the same things that you learned as you grew your organizations into the multi-million dollar institutions that they are today.  The time we spend on these other boards have taught us to look at the big picture and developed our skills in board leadership.  We are passionate about the field and the mission-driven work.  We are more likely to take calculated risks that reaffirm that mission than the corporate folks your boards seems so enamoured with over the past few years. 

Worried about the lack of institutional knowledge?  Perhaps that isn’t what the organization requires right now.  We bring a new perspective, one that is sorely needed.  One that puts aside the things you may still only be doing because you’ve always done them and can run honest analysis of multiple options without the baggage of history.  A perspective that honors why you built this theatre in the first place: to create great art.  The financial and production history we can easily learn. We can read financial statements and examine budgets with a new eye.  We can also debate the finer points of the voice (or lack thereof) the organization is using on social media sites.

We may or may not be attending the fantastic Emerging Arts Leaders meetings that Americans for the Arts and local arts advocacy organizations facilitate across the nation.  We may not see ourselves as “emerging” at all, but rather fully present and arrived.  We may not be of your generation, your race, or your gender, but we are here and we are ready.


Side note to those leaders who are emerging: if you look to take the reins yourself one day and currently see gaps in your skills, take action now.  Check our the emerging arts leaders groups, here’s the link for more info about the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition’s meetings. There are fantastic classes that can teach you the knowledge base, but, also, get yourself onto the board of an organization you love.  Your skill set will grow and your perspective will broaden in ways you can only imagine.  Set yourself up for success.  Your passion will take you the rest of the way.


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Board governance is not for the faint of heart

I just have to say, first of all, that I LOVE the Blue Avocado and You’ve Cott Mail emails.  They are always insightful, useful, and get my brain jumpstarted in the morning.  If you don’t already receive them, click the links and get started.

It was an article asking “Who is Responsible for the Board Doing a Good Job?” in Blue Avocado this morning that inspired this post.  I have to admit, I have been guilty of thinking, “what is this board doing, why can’t they do their job?!?”  But, I have come to agree with author Jan Masaoka that if the board isn’t working, you need look no further than the executive leadership of the company (I’m going to use “executive leadership” as my term of choice because I think it is the responsibility of all executive-level leaders to do this work, whether they bear the title of Executive Director, Artistic Director, Managing Director, or any other).  Yes, it is our fault and we can (and need to) do something about it.  If we are going to reap the benefits of the virtuous circle that strong boards and strong exective leadership creates, we have to get serious about what we are doing to make it a reality.  One executive director is quoted in the article as asking herself every day at noon, “What have I done today to strengthen the board’s ability to lead?”  This is a great place to start.

So, what can we do to help our boards lead?  Here are just a handful of ideas.  Please add your own in the comments!

  1. Make sure everyone on the board has a project.  Not everyone is cut out for the in-person asks for large checks and this isn’t the only reason you have a board. As an executive leader it is our responsibility to know what the strengths of our board members are and how those strengths would be best utilized in support of our mission.  You should know this before you bring someone on the board, but you also need to do regular check-ins to make sure that you are still on target with their interests and strengths.  I believe that someone should check in with each member of the board every six months.  Once a year by the executive staff leadership and once by the board chair.  The baseline for performing arts boards is to attend performances and bring friends, but it is our job to help them think beyond the basics.  If, after a thorough check in you still don’t know how to utilize a board member, it is time for them to roll off the board an make room for someone who can and will contribute.
  2. Give the board the tools they need.  Perhaps a board member is interested in doing person-to-person fundraising but doesn’t feel they have the skills to do it well.  Set up a Fundraising 101 session at the annual retreat (preferrably lead by a board member who is good at it, but a great development director can do it, too) so that everyone can practice and realize that each ask is the end of a careful cultivation process, not a cold request for a check.  Also, connect your board members with classes, articles and information from the Foundation Center, local nonprofit support organizations (like Georgia Center for Nonprofits), BoardSource, and, of course, Blue Avocado.  The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta works with GCN to provide classes specifically to increase nonprofit effectiveness.
  3. Create a mentor system for new board members.  When you bring in a new class of board members (you are bringing them in in groups of two or more, right??), set the newbies up with a buddy who is confident about his/her contribution to the board and can help keep them focused on productive activities.  It is so easy to get someone excited to be with you and support your mission and then have that excitement slowly peeter out through lack of focus and the pull of their daily lives.  The more motivated folks you get working to help the new members, the stronger the connection will be (and the less amount of time any one person will have to spend in the support role).
  4. Make committee meetings active.  Nothing kills the desire to participate like going to meetings and listening to the staff drone on about reports.  Each member of the committee should have something that they are working on and will need to give a short status update about at the meeting.  The committee chair should be checking in with the members between meetings to make sure they have the tools that they need and are on track to give their reports.  It doesn’t help the member feel successful to just wait until the meeting and say, “What have you been doing all this time??”  And, yes, it is the responsibility of the executive leadership to make sure the committee chairs are on track!  When was the last time you spoke to your nominating chair about their governance of the committee and any needs they might have?

It isn’t hard work to keep your board active, but it does take a committment to make it part of your daily job description.  We are in a symbiotic relationship with the board and it is our responsibility to make sure we all get fed.


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