Get on Board: How Governance Experience can Help You and the Arts
Accepting your first board position in an arts organisation can be a great personal and professional achievement.
Being a board member can offer you experience, exposure, significant professional development, and enable you to champion initiatives that are close to your heart. It demands commitment and enthusiasm and can be immensely rewarding.
A board appointment can also be challenging and often entails more than you may have anticipated.
So what do you need to consider as you get on board? Here’s some advice from someone who has experienced it first hand:
Do your research
It’s important to know what’s involved before you take on a board position. You need to have a realistic understanding of the role of a board and your position as a non-executive director.
There are many online resources to get you started. Creative New Zealand’s Getting on Board: A governance resource guide for arts organisations is a good launching place for your research. The Trans-Tasman equivalent, the Australia Council’s On Board: Serving on the board of an arts organisation also explains the situation clearly.
“Being a board member of an arts organisation is both a pleasure and a responsibility. The pleasure comes from associating with an organisation whose work you admire and enjoy, and helping to sustain and develop that work. The responsibility comes from meeting legal compliance requirements, and ensuring that organisational performance meets the expectations of the public and key stakeholders.”
Most people begin with a board position on a not-for-profit or community organisation before moving onto corporate and public sector boards. These are usually honorary (unpaid) positions although there may be allowances for out-of-pocket expenses.
It is rare to secure a corporate board position unless you are already in senior management and have extensive board experience.
Be realistic about the time commitment involved, especially if you are also working full time or juggling multiple roles. It may seem like you’re only required to attend a meeting once a month, but there will almost certainly be another layer of reading and preparation to do ahead of each meeting. And most boards will then co-opt you onto sub-committees or special projects that consume another chunk of time.
There are also functions to attend, stakeholder meetings, briefings and dinners, speeches to prepare, annual report retreats, and numerous other special events that the board is expected to attend.
It can be very helpful to review the composition of various arts boards to understand the range of desirable skills and qualities. These can usually be found on an organisation’s website and in the annual report.
CNZ's Getting on Board is a good place to start. Photo: Black Grace/Duncan Cole.
Check your skill set
You may feel that you are well-equipped for a board position, especially if you’re already in an arts management position, but it’s a good idea to do a skills audit.
Board selection processes can be rigorous, especially if a professional recruiting firm is involved, so you need to ensure you can tick all the boxes. Look at the skill set that would make an impact on the board and match these with your own skills.
Understanding the finances is always at the heart of your role as a board member. This doesn’t mean you have to be an accountant, but you do need some financial literacy. At the very least, you should be able to read – and understand – the balance sheet and financial reports and know the questions you should be asking.
Remember, if anything goes wrong, people will look to the board for answers. You should be able to assess the balance sheet and business plan over the short, medium, and long term.
And there are particular issues around governance and management in a not-for-profit organisation. This is also about embedding sustainability for the organisation into the future. Being able to apply multi-outcome evaluations which go beyond the bottom line is another important skill. Audit and governance; organisational change management; philanthropy, fundraising and partnerships; and a deep understanding of the individual organisation are at the heart of a board appointment.
Competition is generally intense for board positions and many people with excellent skills and qualifications will apply. Don’t forget that there is always pressure on boards to appoint people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Always be sure that, where appropriate, these particular qualities are explicit in your board appointment expressions of interest and CV.
Being part of a board is like helping an organisation connect the dots to success. Photo: Maria Bobrova/Unsplash.
A helping hand
Having a board mentor can be a great help for aspiring or novice board members. This is usually an informal arrangement with someone who has significant board experience, especially in your preferred area. Many universities offer some form of mentorship service for graduates or you may be able to find someone through a professional association like the Mentoring Foundation.
A board mentor can be invaluable in helping you craft your board applications, assess your skills, and identify potential opportunities.
Once you have some board experience, and a professional profile to match, you may find you are head-hunted for suitable opportunities. This is unlikely to happen at first, so you need to be proactive about finding and applying for positions.
Very often, it really is who you know that matters. Be actively involved in the creative industries and meet as many people as possible. Speaking at industry conferences is a great way to build your profile and get known as a leader.
Congratulations! You have made it to your first (or second, or third…) board appointment.
You may feel a little overwhelmed by the challenges, especially now, when the world seems to be spinning off its axis, but good management matched with good governance can ensure your organisation survives and thrives.
Never underestimate the power of an optimistic mindset and an enquiring mind. Sometimes the most important thing you can do as a board member is to ask the difficult questions. Good luck!
This article was originally published by our friends at Artshub Australia, with New Zealand references added.
Written by Dr. Diana Carroll.