In Brief | Appreciation for our boards should not stop us from stepping back and asking how governance can adapt to the spirit of our times.

My working life in orchestras has been immeasurably enhanced by many wonderful board members, whose dedication and generosity have been inspiring and stabilizing even in times of severe challenge. The job of a non-profit CEO can be lonely, and board members—especially the chair—have vital roles as guides, advisors, and advocates. Organizationally, it’s almost impossible to imagine an orchestra finding real success or growth without an effective board. Great boards have deep commitment to the organization’s mission, provide effective fiduciary oversight, support employees, give generously, understand the boundary between governance and management, and lead the tireless advocacy in the community necessary for successful community engagement and fundraising. Many reading this article who work closely with boards will recognize this in their own boards.

I too am in that lucky category here at the League. Our board is a national collective representing the vast range of American orchestras—from major centers to small communities, from all compass points of the country, from orchestra trustees to musicians to conductors to executives to educators. I am grateful to them all, and our field can feel secure in the knowledge that the stewardship of our national association is in the hands of people who care so much.

However, appreciation for our boards and for boards in general should not stop us from stepping back and asking how well orchestra boards are functioning in the 21st century and what might need reassessment. This article proposes some ideas for discussion—and comes unapologetically from the perspective of a CEO. I want to touch on four main areas: community representation, mission and purpose, culture, and philanthropy—and then wrap up with some closing thoughts on structure.

Diverse boards hire diverse teams who, in turn, put diverse art on stage.

The first, community representation, is the most obvious area where progress is urgently needed. Although, at 54% men to 46% women, gender representation is near reflective of the U.S. population, American orchestra boards are 84% white in a country that (per the 2022 national census) is 59% white. Most demographic projections show the U.S. becoming a majority-minority country by 2045 at the latest, making the notion of 85% white boards even more untenable than it is now. And it’s not just about symbolism—it’s about the very real issue of providing the diversity of thought that leads to vibrant strategies and inclusive programs. We know that diverse boards hire diverse teams who, in turn, put diverse art on stage. And committing to diversity of thought also means including those who are willing to advocate and lead change as well as those who support current assumptions.

For orchestras to advance individually and collectively to diversify board leadership will require a major rethink of nominating practice. Much advice is available elsewhere on this subject, so I won’t labor the point except to suggest that the traditional practice of governance committees spending their time in lists of “who we know” is no longer fit for purpose. All non-profit organizations are appropriately under scrutiny for how they serve the good of all people, not just a slice of the population. This is the commitment they make as 501(c)(3) organizations in return for the benefit they and their donors receive each year through tax exemptions. Boards that do not represent the communities they serve in the many dimensions of diversity, not only race, are simply very unlikely to lead organizations that indeed serve the whole community.

How might our artistic, education/community, and marketing board committees be rethought to operate through a purpose-driven lens rather than an activity-driven lens?

The second area concerns boards’ engagement with mission. Most boards include experienced individuals who are very skilled and comfortable in their roles as fiduciary leaders. In every orchestra I have ever been involved in, the finance, audit, investment, governance, and human resources committees have been highly effective—and indeed the organization could not function without them. But when we turn to committees that lie closer to areas of mission and public impact—artistic, marketing, and community engagement—the board’s role becomes less clear. It’s an uncomfortable truth that these committees provoke widespread eye-rolling among administrative leaders for the low level of additive value they tend to provide relative to the time taken servicing them, which distracts from the never-ending work of putting music on stage, making impact, and generating income. The result is misaligned expectations that can lead to frustration on all sides.

These committees remind us how boards have changed. Decades ago, before arts organizations were professionalized to the degree they are now, boards played a more granular role in organizational decision-making. Today, with staff job descriptions in large organizations that are micro-segmented by job know-how and experience, the purpose of these “non-fiduciary” committees—at least in their current iterations—is often unclear. But I think there’s a way to give these committees new meaning.

In my time as a CEO, I have consistently been held accountable by boards to results on fundraising, ticket sales, successful contract negotiations, and financial outcomes—but only rarely on the delivery of mission. Board chairs should be able to say to a CEO in their annual review at the end of the year: “Bravo on great fundraising, ticket sales, and financial results, but we’re concerned about a few areas in which our organization has not lived up to its broader purpose in the community this year.” These are words CEOs rarely hear, and it suggests the need to elevate discussion of mission effectiveness to a much higher level within board discourse. There’s an interesting recent series of publications from BoardSource called Putting Purpose First, which I recommend, that dives deeper into the idea of “purpose-driven boards.”

Boards can and should flex to meet the social climate of our time, prizing transparency, social impact, and the sharing of power, without in any way relinquishing ambition.

Diane Ragsdale Director of Creative Leadership at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, has written eloquently on this subject, and presented a stimulating session at the League’s 2021 Online Midwinter Managers Meeting. She describes the work of arts leadership as falling into three categories: aesthetic (is it beautiful, excellent, or interesting?), ethical (who benefits from our work and what is our moral framework for decision making?), and economic (is it financially advantageous?). Boards tend to be excellent in the economic category, diligent in ethics as it applies to business practice and compliance, but tentative in scrutiny of the aesthetic and moral aspects of mission. So how might our artistic, education/community, and marketing committees be rethought to operate through a purpose-driven lens rather than an activity-driven lens? Could they become the home for real discussion and accountability around the impact of programming, community relevance, and access, rather than simply reviewing activities and programs? This dialogue would feed into conversation at the full board, where a regular assessment of mission impacts would take equal place alongside financial performance in evaluating the orchestra’s overall effectiveness and success. Imagine, if you will, a finance report followed directly by a mission report.

The third area is about culture. Management guru Peter Drucker famously wrote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Any success I have had in running organizations has come from the belief that empowerment, collaboration, internal harmony, and happy people are not ancillary outcomes but, in fact, core requirements for success. I certainly won’t claim to have always achieved exactly what I hoped for in terms of culture—it’s genuinely hard in the complex and often stressed environments we work in—but it’s one of the most powerful multipliers of great ideas if you can get there. And as we work collectively to increase the pace of change in the diversity of American orchestras, especially on stage, we know we must continually improve how welcoming, inclusive, and empowering our cultures are. These are qualities that Millennial and Gen Z artistic and administrative team members regard as baseline workplace requirements, not optional extras.

Orchestra boards should focus their work not around traditional governance buckets but on a more nuanced and specific framework that stimulates discussion and accountability in newly purposeful ways.

So for reasons relating both to the moral imperative and the drive for business success, boards can’t afford to delegate culture entirely to administrative and artistic leadership. It matters too much, and it should be a constant agenda item in the boardroom so that all trustees know that an important part of their role is to care about culture, discuss it, model it, and hold leaders accountable for it.

The last area is, in many ways, the most complex of all, and I wade into it with some trepidation. Philanthropy is the lifeblood of all non-profit work in this country, and as someone who grew up in the U.K., where to this day it remains an underdeveloped muscle, I am in constant awe of the generosity that underpins American nonprofits. We simply take it as given here that people give to the things they care about—which shows up in orchestras in extraordinary ways. The pages of donor names in the program book of any American orchestra are remarkable, and of course, it’s in the higher donation categories that we find the names of many of an orchestra’s board members. It’s axiomatic that giving starts with the board—and the need for 100% giving is deeply entrenched in the fundamentals of good board practice. And increasingly, as orchestras need to close ever larger budgetary gaps each year, the generous donors who give at the highest levels year after year have never been more precious to us.

However, we can’t hide from uncomfortable questions about to what extent we should be connecting capacity and generosity with power and influence in a world in which scrutiny over equity has never been more intense. The relationship between philanthropy and authority in American boards is not linear, yet we all know it’s an embedded feature of our governance. The question, therefore, is how to mitigate concerns about elitism and control without upending the generous philanthropy that we rely on.

It’s time to come up with new approaches to governance that are consistent with the spirit of the present.

The most pragmatic approach is to enable philanthropists to be guiding lights in the enterprises that they choose to invest in, while avoiding vesting decision-making in a small group of leaders such as an executive committee, and ensuring that key governance processes reflect a multitude of stakeholder voices, including musicians and community leaders. And it’s important to be aware that representation alone does not automatically lead to agency; we need to work intentionally in our meeting practice to give all board members voice, whatever their status as donors, their race or social background, or their comfort with expressing their opinions in a large meeting.

And let’s say it out loud: diversity and representation are not the enemy of a philanthropic culture on a board—in fact, quite the reverse. A true culture of philanthropy is where a diverse collective of individuals each provides support at a level meaningful to themselves—whether a hundred dollars or a hundred thousand dollars—to an enterprise whose purpose and impact they deeply believe in.

I think boards can and should flex to meet the social climate of our time, prizing transparency, social impact, and the sharing of power, without in any way relinquishing ambition. So I’d like to propose a variant of Diane Ragsdale’s framework. My thought, on which I invite commentary, is that orchestra boards focus their work not around the traditional governance buckets of fiduciary, strategic, and generative, but on a more nuanced and specific framework that would stimulate discussion and accountability in a newly purposeful way:

Aesthetic – Are we generating high-quality, meaningful, innovative art on stage?
Representation – Do the people involved with our organization reflect our community, and do they have a voice in our decision-making?
Ethical – How effectively are we serving our nonprofit mission to deliver benefits to the broader community?
Cultural – How do our people—and all those in our orbit—feel and act?
Economic – What are our financial outcomes and what should they be?
Philanthropic – How are we, as board members, supporting the above?

I can’t say I know exactly what this looks like structurally. But I think we can usefully take a red pen to some of our ingrained non-profit governance practices and come up with new approaches that are more consistent with the spirit of the time. Our traditional committee structures and governance processes could be given exciting new energy if viewed through the lens of purpose and impact—which is, after all, why we exist in the first place.