In Non Profit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge wrote a pretty involved comparison between the stakeholder revolts which reversed board decisions to close San Diego Opera and Sweet Briar College.
There is a lot to be gleaned about how popular support has apparently turned things around for the two organizations. It is worth reading on that basis alone.
There were a few things that popped out at me as general lessons, not necessarily dependent on these scenarios, about the environment in which arts organizations are operating.
First was an observation by current San Diego board chair, Carol Lazier, that:
“…the community was absolutely furious. We had a great opera company, a cultural jewel, and no one wanted to lose it. We had people who didn’t even go to the opera who were fighting closure, saying, ‘This is not right—this is owned by the public; this is not owned by the small group of people on the inside.’”
It is easy to have mixed feelings about this response because indignation by people who never attended doesn’t pay your bills. Yet we clearly know that arts organizations are viewed as a community asset by both individuals and businesses. People may not actually participate in your activities, but they like the idea of living in a community that has an opera, symphony and art museum. Businesses and individuals will relocate to places with these amenities.
While the presence of your arts organization is definitely an intangible asset, the value of which is difficult to quantify to politicians and others who want to cut arts funding, this type of reaction does allow you to answer the question about how your community would be impacted if your organization didn’t exist.
Another observation made about San Diego Opera board governance provided some insight into a downside of a “Get, Give or Get Off” policy of board membership.
The San Diego Opera was one of those organizations where having a large number of people on the board was a function of fundraising. You pay x amount of money and you’re on the board, and no one wants to alienate any of those folk with contentious conversations that cause discomfort. But that is certainly not a good modus operandi for an organization facing the whitewater of the twenty-first-century cultural organization. And, it was not only the business model that had to change but the governance model, too.
The implication that a non profit needs to have a governance structure that allows it to be nimble is something to seriously consider. Scrutiny of non-profits is shifting focus about the role of a board away from fund raising and toward effective governance.
The San Diego Opera board went from 53 to 24 in the course of a few days due to resignations. A quick look at the opera website shows it continues to maintain those numbers two years later.
Not only is there no correlation between the ability to make large donations and the ability to effectively govern an organization, some people may have no interest in doing so. This made me recall a story told by an executive director about a large donor who showed relief when presented the option of NOT serving on the board because they didn’t see it as a reward at all.
Finally, in relation to the Sweet Briar closure, I was quite intrigued to learn that generally those who most supported the closure were from among the earliest graduates. When they attended, a women’s college was the only option for higher education. Now that a woman could attend anywhere they wished, they didn’t feel single gender higher education was relevant any longer.
It is the younger generations that intentionally chose to attend Sweet Briar when hundreds of other options existed that have been the most invested in keeping the institution open.
This information brought to mind the question that arts organizations have increasingly been challenged to ask themselves over the last few decades: Given that so many other options exist for people, are you providing those who intentionally choose to engage with the arts a reason to continue to do so?
The example of Sweet Briar seems to illustrate that answering in the affirmative is what turns people into invested stakeholders.