Too Young to Sit at the Adult Table?

by Adam Natale

in Financial Adaptation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Financial Adaptation blog salon curated by Adam Thurman for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

I have a vast knowledge of the national theatre field.  I worked for the National Endowment for the Arts and have served on multiple significant grants panels.  I grew an organization from 2,000 members to 20,000 members in six years.  I have written successful grant applications and deeply understand the current funding climate.  I chaired an advisory board for Americans for the Arts.  I have built a personal network of 1,000+ colleagues and peers throughout the country.  I am seen as a leader in my field and have received multiple awards as an arts administrator.  I’m asking to join your board because I know and highly respect the work that your company does.  Oh, and by the way, I’m 31.

Unfortunately, with most theatre companies, that last sentence would have killed my chances of garnering a spot on their boards – that is, unless I had an instantly-recognizable last name…. Something like Tisch, Roth, Koch, or otherwise.  But, the bulk of the first paragraph made me seem pretty appealing, right?

Everyone has a different reason for joining a board.  Some do it because they feel a significant connection to a particular company and want to offer assistance – monetary or otherwise.  Some join boards for a new experience and to meet new people.  Others join because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you have disposable income and want to get invited to the best parties, right?  Some, like me, want to help, learn, and gain experience simultaneously.

I knew that if I wanted to advance in my field, I needed board experience.  Fortunately, I found a tremendous company to work with – Red Bull Theater – which has the friendliest, most thoughtful board I have ever known.  I definitely landed in the right place.  However, during my investigation of boards to join, there was one thing that held me back from working with most companies – my age.

One company wanted to relegate me to a junior board – the kids table of governance.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t offer the level of experience I was hoping to gain.  These groups usually throw a few parties and that’s it.  Sure, one or two members might eventually join the board, but probably not for some time.

Other companies asked me point blank if I could afford the give/get – as if it were the only criteria standing between me and a trustee position.  That’s completely understandable and reasonable as well.  I told them honestly that I would do my best to raise the amount they cited.  With some companies, I knew it was doable – with others, not so much. Red Bull was initially in the latter group, but now asks its trustees to give at a level that is “significant to them.”  (A suggested dollar figure is still presented to the board, however.)  And, though I don’t have disposable income, I give a relatively decent amount (for someone my age) and donate a lot of work hours and assistance (specifically, I solicited and obtained about 90% of the donations for our annual silent auction).  So, whether or not I’m giving at the suggested level, I’m definitely investing a lot in the company in a variety of ways.

I’m thrilled to be a part of Red Bull Theater, having served on their board for over four years now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But, I’m less thrilled that many similar-sized theatres turned me down simply because of my age.

When I hosted a webinar regarding this issue a few years ago, I asked Ben Cameron what he thought about this topic.  His response was, “Board recruitment is a casting exercise and should be done with an eye toward the work the board is charged with doing.  The board is a reflection of the community that the organization engages to get the work done.”  The latter part really stuck with me.  Ben went on to say that, “Strategically, that may mean that the board should be selected to reflect the community they wish to have in five years rather than the community they have today.”  As for young board members, he added that, “There should be room to think about young leaders in the mix, not because they’re young but because they reflect the community the organization wishes to have and they’re the right people to get the work done. If that’s right, not every organization may want young leaders (if their target community is retiree, for example) and not every young leader will be an ideal candidate (depending on the work the board needs to get done).”

My hope is that all of the discussion about aging theatergoers transcends into a larger discussion about young(er) people being involved more deeply in theatre companies nationally, as both patrons and as trustees.  I hope you’ll join me in Dallas to discuss this topic further.

Adam J. Natale (Director, SVA Theatre & Board Member, Red Bull Theater) Adam recently joined the School of Visual Arts after serving Fractured Atlas for 6+ years. During his tenure, he helped grow the organization from 2,000 to 20,000 members and launched online education, audience development, and arts insurance programs. Adam has presented at several conferences, including SxSW, National Performance Network, and Dance/USA. Previously, Adam served the Theater & Musical Theater disciplines at the NEA, was an associate producer with the NY Musical Theatre Festival, and was awarded the American Express Emerging Leader Award. Adam is a freelance director and serves on the boards of Red Bull Theater and the Association of Teaching Artists.

  • Jay Sarno

    I joined North Coast Rep’s Board when I was 25 years old and became the President the following year. I was on the board for 5 years, off for 12, and now back for 13 years. Now I am presenting a session at the Dallas Conference on Board leadership. Young is the time to start, if you have the stomach for it and can participate financially. You have to be a fundraiser, and that means leading by example.

  • Alexander Swallow

    Thanks for this article- I started an organisation which helps to promote younger people becoming Trustees: