Ask Corbett: Non-Profit Boards — New Times, Fresh Approaches


“So I Have This Board of Directors…….”

By Corbett Barklie




If you’re a nonprofit 501(c)-3 arts  organization, you have a Board of Directors. It’s the law. The intention of a Board is to provide your organization with governance, community representation and, critically important to most of you, access to money and power.


Sounds great.


But the reality is that most Boards feel more like unwieldy organizational appendages than support groups. It hasn’t always been that way and, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll explain how we got here.


There was a time when sitting on an arts Board was the thing to do if you hoped to climb the society ladder. And making cash donations to the organization was just, frankly, what was done.


Then, in 1960s, things began to change with the creation of the NEA and the introduction of the Ford Foundation arts grant. Both the NEA and Ford attached a matching requirement to their grants which encouraged more private foundations to make arts grants too, and suddenly there was arts money everywhere. In response the number of non-profit arts groups ballooned. According to a report entitled Leverage Lost by John Kreidler, “In the San Francisco Bay area, only 20-30 nonprofit arts organizations were in existence in the late 1950s, while a far greater number of theatres, musical ensembles, performing arts presenters and galleries were operating on a for-profit basis. By the late 1980’s, the Bay Area contained approximately 1,000 nonprofit arts organizations.”


Most of these newly created nonprofit arts groups were small, founder driven enterprises many operating from garages and kitchen tables – nothing at all like the music centers and museums that had historically attracted society mavens.


To complicate matters even more, not long after all these new nonprofits entered the picture, the arts became famously politicized as a result of the NEA individual artists grant vetoes in the 1990s. The ensuing marginalization of the arts, along with the increased number of organizations vying for attention has now made traditional board development virtually impossible.


Today it’s virtually impossible to replicate the kind of high profile, fundraising board of the early ‘60s. Well-meaning arts board members are willing to help the organization in almost every way, except when it comes to raising money. And, frankly, I don’t blame them. Fund raising is hard, even when you get paid to do it. Doing it for free is plain crazy.


“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” 


If you can’t get your board members to raise money, stop asking. It’s easier to change your expectations.


What would happen if you re-imagined your Board, removed the mandate to contribute or raise money and asked them to do something they might actually be good at, like say, audience development? I bet this is generally a more comfortable topic for most board members because it relates to earned income, marketing, and customer service. Now you’re talking business-y language and put them in their comfort zone.


And you’d be surprised at the impact even a small increase in audience members would make on your organization.



Allow Me to Do the Math for You


Let’s say you’re a 99-seat theatre and you generally perform at 40% capacity. Your tickets are $20 each and you do four shows a year, sixteen performances of each show. At this rate you’re making just over $50,000 a year in ticket sales.


Now here’s what would happen if your Board of Directors helped you increase your audience size by just 15% next year. With the same ticket price and number of performances you would now bring in $70,400 per year. That’s a cool 20-grand more.


Ask yourself this: Is your Board contributing more than $20,000 annually? If not, consider moving them away from fundraising and steering them toward sales.


There is potential for real growth here. For example, at a consistent 85% capacity you’d bring in over $108,000 in ticket sales per year. And, the added benefit to strategically increasing your audience size is that you will also increase donations because audience members are your best individual donor prospects.