(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Teresa Eyring.)
At TCG’s 2014 Fall Forum on Governance: Cash & Culture, participants engaged in seminars and interactive work sessions that taught how to strengthen and empower our board culture, but also how to navigate financial difficulties, determine when to grow or pay down debt, and also when to begin succession planning. This was my second Fall Forum. I knew how fortunate I was to be able to attend again and so I was primed to take good notes and learn as much as possible. Given the conversation was around both the financial and cultural health of the American Theatre, TCG did an excellent job of assembling as a diverse, enthusiastic, and brilliant lineup of speakers and panelists.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Robert O’Hara.)
The Forum kicked off on Friday evening with a deliciously rousing, poignant, and provocative address from Robert O’Hara (from him, would you expect anything less?!) on the merits, courage, and consequence of “old, white men” to his career and the American Theatre. I will hardly do his remarks justice by describing them, and so encourage you to watch the video and read the full transcript. Suffice it say, we were captivated, holding our breaths, hanging on every word, and sitting on the edge of our seats. As he concluded, the collective exhale of the audience was quickly followed by a thunderous applause.(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Dr. Cathy A. Trower.)
Bright and early Saturday morning, after a lovely breakfast, Dr. Cathy A. Trower (author and governance expert) spoke with us about how to cultivate the “Best Practices for High Performing Boards.” She opened the conversation by soliciting responses to the following question from the audience:
Why do some nonprofit boards underperform?
- Unclear expectations or a lack of understanding about their role.
- Too often taking the safe way out or an unwillingness to take risks.
- A lack of engagement or a resistance to change.
- A lack of diversity in ways of thinking, not critical or divergent enough in thoughts and ideas.
- Perhaps the board is there for the wrong reasons.
- There may be a lack of board leadership or a wrong mix and skill set.
- There could also be lack of trust, safe space to speak their minds, and a lack of accountability.
As the list grew and grew, I was surprised by how quickly the ideas flowed and also that just as many board members nodded in agreement as staff members. While this could have been simply an airing of grievances that collapsed into a blame game, it instead became an invigorating opportunity to dig in deep and generate ideas for investment, motivation, and change. Trower harnessed the momentum of this energy and took us through a presentation that helped us to identify and cultivate the very best from our board members.
First, she shared the Characteristics of the Best Boards:
- Demonstrate allegiance to the mission.
- Are constructive partners in leadership with the Executive Director.
- Think independently but govern collectively.
- Elevate organizational interests above self-interest.
- Encourage inquiry, promote discourse, and demand debate in the boardroom.
- Are self-aware and committed to continuous improvement.
Then, she talked us through possible Impediments to Better Board Governance and suggested ways to build a Board as a Team:
- Build teamwork.
- Ensure clear and compelling shared purpose.
- Discuss board legacy and determine the board’s mission.
- Set consequential, challenging goals and board benchmarks.
- Avoid group think through appropriate deliberation.
- State trustee expectations and establish a Code of Conduct.
- Select Carefully and Orient New Trustees
- Select team players, those who have a reasonable sense of urgency, can stay focused, and who are emotionally engaged not personally entangled.
- Orient new trustees to the board’s norms/culture.
- Provide mentors, glossaries, directories, connections, and frequently asked questions.
- Plan for Succession
- Have term limits, not just terms.
- Establish position description and succession plan for Board Chair.
- Attend to succession for trustees and board officers.
- Be transparent.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Dr. Cathy Trower.)
Ultimately, Trower explains, “If we give boards a higher purpose, then you’ll get a greater performance.” Again, you can read the entire presentation here.
After lunch, Dr. Trower led the participants through an interactive, hand-on workshop to generate governance strategies. Working in table groups, they had to decide whether or not the Boston Museum of Fine Arts should lend 21 Monets to the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. You can watch the full discussion here.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Susan Nelson.)
From there, Susan Nelson (Principal of Technical Development Corporation) guided participants through the necessary steps to determine: What’s Your Critical Capitalization Challenge. In order to do this, theatres must first diagnose their specific challenge based on their Strategic Plan, Business Model, and both their Operational Risk (risk management) and Strategic Risk (risk taking). She began the conversation outlining the following definitions:
Capitalization is having the cash to do what you want to do when you need to do it.
- It connects organization’s mission, vision and strategic plan.
- It creates investment in the art.
- It allows for the ability to take risk.
Business model is how an organization makes and spends money in service of its mission. Your business model is influenced by:
- Artistic vision and strategy
- Local market
- Time horizon and life-cycle
- Business drivers (audience, facility, collections, and other fixed costs)
- Revenue composition
- Revenue predictability and reliability
- Expense composition
- Surplus size and reliability
From there, Nelson walked us through steps for identifying where your organization stands and possible next steps for achieving financial stability and managing growth. It’s important to take an honest assessment of where your organization stands. Doing so will help you determine whether you have capitalization issue or a business model issue. You must also factor in your organization’s relevance and ability to grow in your current market as this will impact all aspects of your operations from fundraising efforts to artistic programming to when you pay off your debts.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.)
Nelson also reminded us that capitalization is intrinsically a board issue. Successful organizations have board alignment and commitment to the integrated view of program operations and capital. What’s more, we must never divorce capital from mission, vision and strategy. Embedded in this conversation is the notion that artistic and executive leaders must establish organizational cultures that honor the contributions of each and every board and staff member. We’re all in this together, bringing a variety of strengths, experiences, and perspectives, but we are working towards the same goal: the mission, vision, and potential of growth of your theatre. This is critical. You can read the entire presentation here.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.)
Our final session of the day, Capitalization & Governance Panel, featured pairs of trustees and theatre leaders who spoke quite candidly about governance, capitalization, artistic programming, audience development and succession plans. Panelists included Michael Lythcott, (Board Chair of the National Black Theatre); Sade Lythcott (CEO of the National Black Theatre); Steven N. Miller (President of the Board of Directors at Victory Gardens Theater); Ken Novice (Managing Director of Geffen Playhouse); Pamela Robinson (Board Co-chair of Geffen Playhouse); Chay Yew, artistic director, Victory Gardens Theater). TCG’s Managing Director, Kevin E. Moore, moderated the discussion.
This was such a passionate and rapid fire discussion. As I reviewed my notes, I thought to myself, I’m glad TCG recorded this because the information shared here should be in a book or manual for all theatre leaders to read and consider. What I offer here are just a handful of the critical questions that arose around succession:
- What shifts and changes take place under new leadership?
- How do you work in the shadow or presence of a legacy?
- Sustaining and growing the audience is critical—what are your community engagement efforts?
- With respect to staff and board members, will you be adding and/or replacing members?
- With respect to the business model, will you be strengthening, adapting, or changing it?
You can watch the entire conversation here.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.)
The next morning, Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications & Conferences) welcomed us and led participants through the Capitalization & Governance Action Planning and Small Group Sharing. The night before TCG’s Executive Director Teresa Eyring gave us all the following questions to consider:
- What is the step you want to take with your board to strengthen your governance culture?
- What do you think might be your theatre’s critical capitalization challenge or business model challenge?
- Does your board understand and own the challenge? If not, why? And what would it take to change it?
- What’s the first things you’re going to do to put these learnings into action?
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.)
From there, we participated in a peer-led, full group discussion prompted by findings from TCG’s research and theatre leaders’ experiences on the ground. Entitled Collective Leadership: Theatres Respond to Current Field Conditions, this session featured Susan Nelson, Ben Cameron (Program Director for the Arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation), Barbara S. Davis (Chief Operating Officer of The Actors Fund), Kelvin Dilkins, Jr. (General Manager of Two River Theater Company), Victor Maog (Artistic Director of Second Generation Productions), and Vicki Reiss (Executive Director of the Shubert Foundation). The following theatre leaders and artists served as Condition Prompters by speaking directly to the impact of the research findings and raising relevant questions for the panelists to address:
• Joshua Borenstein, Managing Director, Long Wharf Theatre (The Tricky Dynamics of Ticket Sales)
• Yvonne Bell, Director of Advancement, Center Theatre Group (The Changing Funding Environment)
• Larissa FastHorse, Playwright (The State of the Artist)
• Susan Medak, Managing Director, Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Succession and Equity)
By far, this was the most powerful, informative, and charged conversation of the entire Fall Forum. I worked to capture as many responses as possible:
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Josh Borenstein.)
#1. The Tricky Dynamics of Ticket Sales: While subscription income has fallen over the past five years, the past two years have seen small increases. Meanwhile, single income is growing, and remains the largest source of earned income for theatres. From membership models to the nuances of dynamic pricing, how are theatres growing their audience when everything is on-demand?
- Subscription/Subscriber behavior.
- Subscription model is not dead, we just need to do it differently.
- Listen to what subscribers want and don’t assume they want the same thing that they did before.
- Subscribers do become donors.
- What are success stories of single ticket initiatives?
- More individuals are coming to see you more than before, they just aren’t coming the way that you want them to.
- We have to reframe the conversation away from ticket selling model to what is the relationship that you want to have with your audience.
- Shift conversation to community design. If we focus on ticket tales, we’re limiting the way we’re interacting with audience. We have to reexamine the way our money works.
- What is my relationship with the art that can move beyond just one transaction?
- Tickets sales and impact of dynamic pricing.
- Our current model isn’t working. We can’t rely on ticket prices to pay for the production in the way that commercial theatre does.
- When prices are more accessible, we see more audience. Why do we pay more to see a band or musician, but not to the theatre?
- How do we keep our audience as they transition from childless to parenthood?
#2. The Changing Funding Environment: Foundation giving remains the second-largest source of contributed income, but Theatre Facts 2013 show a drop in support in the past five years, leading to an overall decline in contributed income. Have the priorities of foundations shifted, and how can we strengthen this essential relationship at this critical time?
- Shift the way the “ask” happens. We need to pay attention to online giving.
- Do we care about the difference between nonprofit and for-profit organization? If so, how are we communicating the difference? Can there be a shift to theatre or the public good to remove the “no” or negative assumption?
- Relationships with individuals at foundations need to be cultivated in a greater way.
- There are many individuals at foundations that don’t have as much knowledge about theatre and the arts as we want them to, so we need to do better to educate and engage them.
- When you get an email alert or notice to ask your member of congress to keep arts funding an essential part of the advocacy, then you have to follow through and act on it.
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Larissa Fasthorse.)
#3. The State of the Artist: Theatres continue to find new and renewed ways to integrate artists into the lives of their institutions and provide them with greater resources and support; yet, many artists continue to struggle or leave the field altogether. How can we provide a more sustainable existence for theatre’s most important resource—our artists?
- Most artists aren’t able to make a living do the work that we do. Many have to work for television or leave the field entirely.
- When theatres apply for a grant, consider putting in an additional line item to pay your artists/playwright.
- Massive divide between what full-time staff make and what artists make, which makes us feel like a commodity to increase your equity versus working to increase the artist equity.
- How are you supporting and engaging your local artists of color in terms of equity and programming?
- Why are we still thinking of art as a risk?
- Acknowledging the challenge and shame around talking about money. Are there ways to empower and educated yourself about finances, marketing, and how to run your life as artists? Look at the Lark model.
- The question is less about how to retain artists, but more about how we invest more deeply and thoughtfully in artists.
- How do we rethink the model of the resident artists? Do we invest in a different area of their life?
#4. Succession and Equity: As more theatres transition from founder-led organizations to second, third, and even fourth generation leadership, what are the best ways to manage succession? And how does this question connect with our desire to see greater gender parity and racial equity at the leadership of our theatres?
- How are we going to create new opportunities for new voices to shape our organizations?
- What are the things we should be doing differently in this field who are next generations of leaders in the field?
- How much do we value stability over creative disruption?
- The day we begin succession planning is the day the new person arrives. We shouldn’t wait until the announcement.
- At board meetings, bring in leaders who are doing things differently so that we can learn from them.
- How are we mentoring a more diverse pool of students and making it cost affordable?
- How can we counter the notion that theatre leaders of color need more training?
- You’ve got to be willing to be messy and afraid when it comes to bringing theatre leaders of color into the room for consideration.
- Only 19% of theatres have written policy related to staff and board diversity. Why only 19%? How will we address the historical systemic and racist structure embedded in the American Theatre if we cannot even write it down?
- Can the NEA or funders help ensure that women and people of color are being pursued or executive leadership positions?
- How are we embracing diversity with respect, sensitivity and awareness?
- How do we shift away from the fear of loss versus embracing the added value to your organization and community? How do we shift the conversation from “us” versus “them” to a “we”? How do we work to build each other up?
- How do we have conversations around diversity, inclusion, and equity in safe ways?
- How do we allow succession to shift the way we hire and operate our organization?
- How do we shift the mentality that diversity is a burden and that we are not trends?
(Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Woodie King Jr.)
And with that, the room erupted in applause and Teresa Eyring took to the stage. She reflected on our time together and how Robert O’Hara’s humorous and insightful speech, “created a space where something new is possible, where new conversations could be had, where new action steps can be taken, where change is possible because we all open up our hearts.” And then she asked the two questions that the members of the Diversity & Inclusion Institute had been asking just a couple of days before: “How do we collectively create a diverse ecology? How do we create an American Theatre that has space for all?” These are not new questions. They’ve been asked time and time again. And no doubt, they’ll be asked a million times more. Because in order to cultivate a more diverse, inclusive and equitable American Theatre, we have to keep asking them. We have to continue to show up and advocate for change. We have to hold theatres accountable to their communities. And each time someone poses these questions, we have an opportunity to create space and open a few more hearts. So, between now and next year’s National Conference in Cleveland, let’s commit to asking these questions and gathering responses. Let’s strategize and share resources. And please, be in touch. We want to hear from you. We want to lift up the work you’re doing and I can hardly wait to celebrate all that we accomplish once we come together.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com