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by Charles Olton

Self-evaluation is an evergreen concern for those who govern orchestras.

Several years ago, during the informal chit-chat before a meeting of a dozen managers of middle-sized orchestras, I heard a startling exchange. It began when one manager complained that his board chair, a pharmacist, had forced him to adopt a marketing strategy that had worked well in the chair's own business. "He doesn't get it," the manager said. "In his business, the customer's only choice is between generic and brand-name. In ours, the customer can decide not to buy the product at all." (Groans and sighs.)

Not to be outdone, another manager said her entire board had ganged up on her, forcing her to fire the development director and add fund raising to her own portfolio as a means of balancing the budget. "What's a girl to do?" she exclaimed in dismay. (More groans and sighs.)

Commiserating, a third manager declared, "I'll tell you what I do: I lock my board members in a closet, and I only let them out when I'm good and ready."

At this point, the chair gaveled the meeting to order and called for a reading of the secretary's minutes. Just like that: two anguished complaints about trustees making flawed demands that could cause fatal revenue damage--with attendant groans and sighs suggesting that these were not unusual stories--yet the only solution offered was citizen's arrest and incarceration! Nor, it appeared, was any realistic solution expected: No one challenged the chair's decision to end this poignant and revealing conversation in favor of reading the secretary's minutes.

Ever since that day, I have listened intently when managers have spoken about the "board problem." Not all the issues are as stark as those I first heard, nor all the solutions as impractical. But no one should doubt that there's room for improvement in the performance of trustees and boards. The need is pervasive, in all sizes and types of orchestras, everywhere in the country.

The first lesson I have learned is that the "board problem" is really a "board and management problem," and any solution will require thought, participation, and change in the habits and attitudes of both, working together. The second lesson is that both managers and trustees know something is wrong, and would like to change, but are uncertain about both the diagnosis of the illness and prescription for its cure. We--the League, trustees, and managers--need to talk about this. To stimulate the conversation, I offer these thoughts.

Let's begin by understanding who the patient is. Orchestra boards are a species of the genus known as the nonprofit lay governing board. It is one of our nation's truly great civic inventions. Its three adjectives are cumbersome, but essential to its life.

"Nonprofit," of course, refers to the organization's corporate structure--itself a uniquely American creation. It has no investors or shareholders, but is the beneficiary of "investment" by philanthropists, foundations, and corporations, as well as by governments that refrain from taxing the organization and also allow generous tax incentives to donors.

"Lay" simply means that professional expertise is not required of board members. Trustees of academic institutions need not be educators (though university boards often include a few), and you don't have to be a curator to serve on a museum board. By reaching outside the profession, boards gain access to helpful information, wisdom, talent, and financial backing. "Lay" also encompasses another quality: These people are volunteers. Their board responsibilities must be sandwiched between the demands of remunerated work and their social and family lives. Their time, energy, and attention are limited in ways that managers' are not.

"Governing" is the board's role, as distinct from management. The board sets policy, hires the principal executive (and sometimes other key leaders), oversees financial affairs, and evaluates management performance.

If you think about it, this group of volunteer non-experts bears an extraordinary responsibility. The laws that establish nonprofit boards envision them in the role of guardian--for donors, who need assurance that the organization will use their gifts well and appropriately, and for the general public, which has an interest in the services, products, and intangible qualities the nonprofit brings to the community. "Fiduciary responsibility," the term often used to sum all this up, simply means the board is a vessel of public trust, assuring financial stability as well as high-quality, mission-appropriate programs. (The concept of trust, of course, leads to the most common term for nonprofit lay governing boards: "board of trustees.")

That's the end of the civics lesson. Now let's talk about how boards actually work in the orchestra field.

A Profile for Recruitment
The 915 orchestra members of the American Symphony Orchestra League are all nonprofits (or subsidiary operations of nonprofits), and all have lay boards that govern as public trusts. As will always be the case, some are very good at it, and others are not so good. How do we know which is which? And if we can identify the not-so-good boards, how can we make them better? For that matter, how can we be sure that even the good are so good that they will never slip back to not-so-good?

The question is easier to address if you break it into two parts: 1) where do trustees come from, and what makes for a good one? and 2) what are the ingredients of strong collective performance by all the trustees of a board?

People become members of boards because existing members elect them, so the nomination and election processes bear examination. Although there may be no premium on musical knowledge, any board candidate ought to bring something to the table--some expertise or capacity that could promote the orchestra's well-being and success. Knowledge of good business practices, organizational behavior or legal affairs, access to funding sources, or outright personal philanthropy would all qualify. Many boards believe representatives of the orchestra's "constituencies" are a valuable asset--musicians and volunteers, for example--because their presence helps mitigate the lack of expertise among the others in areas that are crucial to the orchestra's life.

Strong boards usually start with an articulated profile or "architecture" that, in some rough proportions, specifies the variety of professional, personal, or financial backgrounds it seeks in members. With a good profile in hand, a board can actively recruit people who fit its needs. If the current members are mostly older, youth may be sought; heavily male boards might look for more women candidates; boards with few wealthy individuals or few corporate executives can attempt to change the balance; if relationships with other nonprofits are essential, representatives from some of them might be sought. The common complaint, "we're a small community, and the good board prospects are already taken by others," is not a good excuse for failing to articulate a profile, and certainly no excuse for abandoning pursuit of the best and brightest.

Recruiting people who meet needs suggested by a profile usually yields better results than alternative methods. It's easy for a board to welcome those who have promoted themselves for membership, or who are friends of existing members; but the skill-sets, much less the motives, of these folks are rarely examined. Are they really prepared to take on this public trust? Or do they view membership as a privilege, a sign of social standing, a mere civic duty, or an opportunity to make friends or business connections?

Now let's turn to the board itself. Suppose it has recruited some really able people, according to a sensible profile. How does it teach them their responsibilities and the orchestra's mission and values? Sending new members the bylaws and other background materials is not enough, nor is a two-hour "orientation" that describes management's work. It's not a good idea to assume that new board members--even those with board experience in other nonprofits--understand what is expected of them. The education or development of board members should be substantial, and should continue throughout the member's tenure. And like any educational process, a "grading system" is a good motivator; effective board development programs include evaluation (or self-evaluation). Both management and the board itself should participate in the education, regardless of its contents and processes.

And that leads to an important principle I hinted at earlier: In successful organizations, the leaders work together, collaboratively, even though their responsibilities differ. The traditional metaphor to describe orchestra leadership is a "three-legged stool" (board chair, executive director, and music director), but increasingly orchestras have seen the wisdom of bringing in a fourth "leg"--musicians. The most interesting feature of the stool, regardless of how many "legs" it has, is that even in the most collaborative setting, the board chair is the first among equals, because the board, not the others, legally holds the public trust. Yet the board chair is the only one of the three or four who is not trained for the job!

The music director and musicians have trained for their work since they were children, and have honed their skills and expanded their artistic capacities to such levels that great art pours forth. The executive director and administrative colleagues have trained for their work in collegiate and graduate programs, in internships and fellowships, in special seminars and workshops, and most of all in their daily work over time. But the board chair? Or for that matter the board itself? Where is governance taught? How does one learn the quantity of information and range of practice necessary to carry out this role well? Even the most successful business leaders can stumble as trustees, because orchestras simply do not work the way organizations in the enterprise sector work.

In a way, the most striking feature of all nonprofit boards, including those that serve orchestras, is how well they do despite their lack of education and training. Which begs the question, how much better would they do, how much more successful would they be, how much more help might they offer, if they were trained?

The University Model

I am an erstwhile student of nonprofit boards. Early in my career, I was a Fellow of the American Council on Education, a program designed to train future college and university leaders, not unlike the American Symphony Orchestra League's Fellowship program. My fellowship took place in 1970, right after the civil rights movement crested, and just as the anti-Vietnam War wave gathered momentum. Campuses were in utter disarray. Academic programs fragmented into new and unfamiliar disciplines, social norms and behavioral mores changed overnight, conscience-driven protests erupted without notice, and issues arising from civil unrest trumped educational concerns everywhere. College and university presidents were beside themselves, and as they attempted to hold things together, they desperately needed steady governing boards for counsel, understanding, and support.

My fellowship project was to study boards, and I watched several in action during this period of extreme crisis. The alumni who peopled them (almost all were men who had graduated decades before) had little capacity to understand, much less cope with, what was happening on campus. The students are protesting? Call the cops. The students and faculty want courses in women's studies, black studies, environmental studies? We're committed to the core curriculum we had as undergraduates. The students don't like the way the college works? Get rid of them, and we'll find others.

I heard board members say these very things. If they seem coarse and inappropriate today, they were really problematic for faculty and administrative leaders then. The board "disconnect" occurred in both public and private academic institutions, large and small. College presidents were devastated.

It's important to say that the trustees and boards that failed so dismally then were composed of good, decent, generous, and intelligent people, who really cared about their institutions--or at least their concept of their institutions. But they were not trained, not educated, not prepared in any way for the firestorms.

The Association of Governing Boards came to the rescue. Prompted by the university presidents it was founded to serve, it began a vigorous board development program, and as a result, a sea change swept through boards of academic institutions during the late 1970s and 1980s. Even today, college and university boards are among the best nonprofit boards in the country, because of AGB's brilliant (and continuing) work.

I tell this story because it raises a question, one with a premise: The governing boards of orchestras are not as good as they might be. Their memberships are not strong enough, probably for reasons of recruitment or education. Their performance is less effective than it might be, probably because they tend to act on instinct rather than informed ideas, and in any event they lack sufficient motivation to overcome the time and energy constraints inherent in any volunteer's work.

Most orchestra boards I know are not nearly as bad as all those academic boards of the early 1970s, but nonetheless they are not good enough. And the question is, how could they be made better? Do orchestras need a crisis, like the one colleges and universities faced in the 1970s, to spark change?

In a way a crisis already exists, though it is quiet compared with what college campuses experienced long ago. No one is protesting; no arrests are being made; nothing is on fire. But the world in which orchestras live--the world of entertainment, art, and culture--is changing daily. If orchestras wish to thrive in the future, as they have in the past, those who are responsible for them need to bring great quantities of creative thought to a whole raft of issues, from repertoire to audience interest, from community relations and music education to organizational development and even trusteeship itself.

It would be a mistake for boards to take full responsibility for considering and acting on all these matters, but it would be equally wrong for them to be uninformed and unengaged. These are critical leadership issues. Management and music directors and musicians--the other legs--have training and expertise, and can be expected to contribute a lot to the process of creative thinking that will guide orchestras through the crisis of the early 21st century. But they cannot do the job alone, any more than college presidents of an earlier time could do it alone.

I have been part of the orchestra field for a mere six years. My personal and professional passion for what we do--and what we might do if we were stronger--has been in steady crescendo throughout that time. (Think of me as born-again.) And I believe the sine qua non of success in the orchestra field, today and in the future, rests in the quality of trustees and boards.

I'm not alone in this opinion. Here's what one journalist wrote recently, lamenting the impending failure of the orchestra in a nearby city: What makes one orchestra succeed and another fail? There are plenty of causes for the discrepancy, but the most important factor is the one that most audience members are probably least aware of: the board and its leadership. It is the board that sets financial priorities and makes sure--or fails to make sure--that management follows them. It is the board that creates a culture in which artistic excellence is either fostered or not. And it's the board that is responsible, above all, for forging the all-important relationship between an orchestra and its community, without which the musicians might as well be visiting artists in town for a series of tour dates.* Amen. Let me add another personal note. I am chief executive of an organization in the orchestra field, and it would be fair to ask whether I practice what I preach--whether the League's board is a model of sound trusteeship and excellent governance. I think highly of my board colleagues: They are motivated, intelligent, generous, loyal, and committed. But could they do better? Of course they could, and they would be the first to admit it. And I would be the first to say that I could lead them better, could provide them with more learning opportunities, and could derive more benefit from them as a result. This is not a confession of guilt. It is a plain statement of reality that all executives and board members must face. We are not as good as we could be. We could be better, and to get better, we need tools and opportunities. At the League's 2002 Conference in Philadelphia, I was able to observe three groups of orchestra trustees talking among themselves about their board experiences, and then I led a large forum that included those trustees, and a good number of orchestra managers as well. The trustees spoke with candor and passion of their desire to get things right, and their deeply felt need for help. Both trustees and managers said they believe improvement is possible--some said necessary--and seemed certain that stronger boards would translate into stronger orchestras. I'm not sure exactly where this might lead. Indeed, the journey is all the more intriguing to me because the destination is not yet in sight. We have established a discussion-mechanism on the Internet, called Trusteeship Today, which allows me to carry on a kind of dialogue with a large number of trustees and managers about the future of trusteeship and board governance in American orchestras. (For information on how to join, see box, page 68.) We are sharing ideas and concepts, and as the year goes by we will begin to consider concrete proposals. We hope to bring this to a head at the League's 2003 Conference in San Francisco. Then Big Questions will be posed: Is it possible to invent a trustee and board development program that addresses the needs of the orchestra field well, and if it is invented, will orchestras and their trustees use its resources? Will they be willing to make serious investments--of money and of time--to strengthen governance and leadership? We cannot (and should not) attempt answers to those questions now. But if the Trusteeship Today group presents a Board Development program, and if managers and board members agree that it properly addresses the issues, the Big Questions will beg for Big Answers.

Charles S. Olton is president and chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League.