Governance in arts

Everyone wants to be a member of an arts organisation. It’s a great way to be engaged in the sector; however few want to be tapped upon the shoulder with a request to join the board or committee of management. It all seems too much like hard work.

This reluctance to serve creates a self-feeding problem. A reluctance by members to engage in governance results in a core group of people always being on the committee, often with the same people rotating through the president, treasurer and secretary roles. This can be unhealthy. It promotes inward thinking. It creates a sense of ownership amongst long-serving members and often they become reluctant to entertain new ideas. This in turn discourages newcomers from engaging in governance!

Governance isn’t difficult and done well it doesn’t need to be time consuming. There are some fundamental, best practices that create an enjoyable governance environment.

Firstly, have in place a code of conduct or set of rules that guide the board or committee. Often these are in addition to the standard association, or company rules. Governance rules can set out terms for office holders and board membership, often referred to as a sunset clause. This prevents the ‘lifer’ sitting on the board for 20 years, embedded in the past, and ensures proactive recruitment of committee members.

A code of conduct sets out expectations of behaviour of committee or board members, arbitration and remedial processes. This can go a long way towards reducing conflict and tension.

Rules can be in place to define the role and responsibilities of sub-committees, spending and investment guidelines. I once worked with a small community organisation which had multiple sub-groups, each group had run off, set up their own rules, opened their own bank account and the treasurer didn’t have any oversight until auditing at the end of each financial year. You can imagine the nightmare that created.

Governance rules can set out administative processes. The structure of reading material and an agenda for meetings, how long committee meetings should take. These are the small, irritating factors that are often assumed, then kidnapped by committee members with ulterior motives and use to create a repressive governance environment. Setting them out in black and white minimises doubt and ensures everyone is working to the same level of understanding.

Keep committee meetings purposeful. The purpose of a meeting is to make a decision, therefore distribute reading material, including financials to all committee members several days prior to a meeting. Avoid using a committee meeting to read and discuss the minuet of detail. Use that time to ask questions, seek clarification and vote – then move on.

On every board or committee there is someone who wants to dissect every word, sentence and paragraph of every page – and send people to sleep. Some committee members use this tactic to drive others to a point where they will vote in agreement just to be able to go home that evening. It is the chairperson’s role to minimise this behaviour – and avoid engaging in it themself.

Include in a meeting agenda an item of general, light-heated discussion. It might be a presentation to the committee, a discussion of the latest performance or event, a review of a members work or a discussion on the future of arts organisations. The purpose is to cause members to lift their eyes off the desk and look into the future. It also adds interest to the proceedings.

Invest in governance training. Often it is free or low cost, or you can join with other orgs to share the cost of engaging an external advisor. This is the best investment your arts organisation will make. Every 3 years for long-standing committee members and all new members should be sent off to governance workshops. The most prevalent cause of conflict within arts organisations goverance is well meaning people on committees, who talk a lot of bullshit and have no idea of what constitutes effective, best practice governance.

In short, create an enjoyable, productive and effective governance process and you will have a waiting list of people wanting to serve and guide your organisation.

If you have governance issues, email John Coxon and I will call you back for a free, no obligation chat about your situation.

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