THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT BOARD AND GOVERNANCE STRUCTURES

Updated: Apr 21

by Lisa Mackay


In a recent session of RAMP (Rozsa Arts Management Program), Justin Solamillo and Jen Beyer of the Province of Alberta’s Community Development Program presented on Board-Management Relationships. In their engaging talk, they outlined the legal responsibilities of a nonprofit board, what it means to be incorporated, distribution of responsibilities between board and staff, and the elements required for a healthy and productive board/management relationship. The topic of board/management relationships is relevant and much discussed. The chat function of the RAMP Zoom room was busier than in any previous session as participants asked a myriad of questions and shared their experiences and insights. This follows a broader discussion that has been happening in the nonprofit sector regarding the current board governance model and its pros and cons in a rapidly changing world. As Erin Kang writes in a blog post for the Ontario Nonprofit Network, “Nonprofit leaders are beginning to see that the governance of organizations sits within a larger context of equity, power, and the future of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit governance is not consistently meeting the needs of the sector and needs to be reimagined – but how do we get there?” There have been many articles, blog posts, videos, and opinion pieces published recently as the nonprofit sector, like so many others, grapples with the new reality of the pandemic, social justice, and sustainability. (Many of these will be linked on our resources page under the Board heading.) It must be acknowledged that many boards have been working very hard within the current structures to see their organizations through these difficult times, and our hats are off to these hardworking members of our community. It is not the people involved that are being questioned, but the existing board structure in which they function. Thought leaders like Vu Le of the blog Non-Profit AF are pointing out that “we are talking about a structure where groups of volunteers who barely know one another, see one percent of the work, often don’t reflect the communities we serve, and who may have little to no experience running nonprofits, being given vast power to supervise leadership and determine values, policies, and practices. Why did we think this weird structure would work?” The chat section echoed many of the predominant questions about the current structure, and their questions and comments fell under these broad categories:

  • Board Recruitment and Expertise: Non-profit boards are typically comprised of members with expertise in business, law, human relations, project management, etc. but rarely in the arts beyond their attendance and passion. Is it fair to charge them with keeping an arts company running and strategically relevant when in many cases they are unaware of the intricacies of the work? Is it right for them to oversee the people with the expertise in the art itself and in managing an arts company? How can they be expected to make successful hiring decisions if they have limited industry context?

  • Diverse Representation: Most Alberta non-profit arts organizations are not prepared and do not have an existing organizational culture to attract and support authentic IBPOC participation. The recruitment and contribution of Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour (IBPOC) board members often replicates longstanding inequities. With the expectation and desire for arts organizations to diversify their boards and recruit IBPOC board members who can bring their expertise and lived experiences, are there any existing equitable and fair strategies to assist boards in doing this work?

  • Board/Staff Relations and Communication Structures: If the board sets the strategic goals and objectives, and management is hired to execute them, how can staff provide feedback on the scope of expectations, and if they are achievable? Is it still appropriate for the staff doing the work of the company to have little to no contact with the board who are creating the strategies?

  • Human Relations Policy Development: How can staff who are not at the management level encourage the board to create HR policies that include executive accountability? Within the current board structure, how can companies ensure that HR policies exist to protect the staff as well as management and board directors?

Justin and Jen did a great job at responding to questions and addressing concerns. They were sympathetic to the idea that there are many issues within arts organizations that current board structures make difficult to confront, and offered some reflection on the many questions raised, especially regarding IBPOC representation. Certainly, an easy solution or replacement board structure does not currently exist, or, as Vu Le so perfectly put it “if we had an effective structure that works for everyone, we would already be using it.” Do you agree that the current nonprofit board structure needs some reimagining? Have you ever asked yourself versions of the questions raised by the RAMP participants? Have you seen alternate board structures that are perhaps an improvement to the structure currently in use? While our RAMP participants move on to their Strategic Planning and Thinking and Fund Development sessions, the topic of board/management relationships and board structure remains on many people’s minds. We would love to hear any thoughts, opinions, resources, or examples from our community through comments below or on our Facebook page, and will be looking to host a wider discussion in the future!

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