Is your Board putting their hand in their pocket?

First published in Arts Professional

I have worked with a lot of Boards in my time. Some incredibly supportive, a guiding hand from afar. Others so hands off they appeared once every two months like spectres hovering in the background. Some, too interfering, incapable of recognising the individual talent within the organisation and the fact that day to day, they should just leave them to it.
I have often wondered what attracts people to Board Membership. Moral and civic duty? Ego? Community service?
It is a huge responsibility, working strategically and supportively for an arts organisation. Whether a theatre, community project, gallery or festival the burden on Board members must be at its heaviest in the next couple of years. But is there one thing we should be asking our Boards right now that we’re just too British to do?
Last week I was with Business in the Arts. One of their programmes matches people from the private and commercial sector with Boards at art organisations across the North and North West. Be they lawyers, accountants, marketers, teachers, entrepreneurs. Whether it’s their first time or they’re seasoned professionals it is about sharing skills, and making those skills available to arts organisations who, as we all know, don’t have the luxury of buying in knowledge as much as we would love to. It’s a quid pro quo. Arts organisations get the benefit of experience, a widened pool of knowledge while the new Board Member is able to get involved in our incredible cultural sector and turn their skills to real benefit. You give up your time, yes, but you get to be hands on with the running and vision of an arts organisation, whatever its size.
So I’m sitting, listening to Vivienne Tyler who is chairing this session about Board membership. I’m musing on Board papers I’ve produced in my time, Board reports, the often fear you get when the Chair is coming to visit when Vivienne says this. “Do you know when you’re asked to join a Board in the US you’re expected to write a cheque?” No warm fuzzy feeling about giving up your time, contributing to our rich cultural landscape. How much of you got and how much can you give?
At first I felt very English about it. Brutes. Culture shouldn’t be about digging in your pocket. Board membership shouldn’t be for only the richest and the most wealthy. We don’t want our galleries looking like bank boards, all stripy suits getting a sense of fiscal reach over the artistic programme of a gallery. Once you contribute money, you’re going to want to protect your investment, aren’t you? Are you going to be more likely to want to fund something that’s guaranteed to be popular, doesn’t upset the apple cart? Art, we all know, isn’t always about that.
But then I started to think a little more. We’re very bad at asking people to put their hands in their pockets in this country. Charities like Amnesty and Cancer Research do it by getting us to sign up for a monthly donation. Whatever we can afford, however small, we are reassured, will help. Should we not think about getting our boards to do the same?
For the next couple of years, particularly in the next week, the bottom line is going to be the bottom line. Have you ever asked your Board to contribute?

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