In the Loop: Internal Communication Is Essential to Good Governance

In any number of orchestras that I have visited recently, it has become clear to me that a big problem, and one not talked about as much as it should be, is communication. I don't mean public relations. I mean internal communication inside the organization.
It starts at the board level; the tone for any orchestral organization is set by the board and its leadership. When I hear board members tell me that they don't know what is going on in their own organization -- that a small handful of "leaders" make all the decisions, and they are expected to rubber-stamp them -- to me that is the sign of an unhealthy organization. And I'm sorry to say that there are more of those than you might think.

Clearly not every decision, large and small, can be discussed and vetted with a complete board. And clearly there's a difference between management and governance; there are operational decisions that do not require board involvement, and big-picture ones that do. Also clear is the fact that certain personnel issues require a confidentiality that's only possible when discussion is confined to a small group of people - board officers or the executive committee, along with the executive and/or music director. It is important that board members recognize this truism. To be blunt and give a direct example: No orchestra can hold a serious discussion with the full board about whether to renew the contract of a music director. The chances that such a conversation, and its details (accurate and distorted), would become public are much too great. But issues like this are the exception, not the rule.

Most big-picture issues must be matters for board consideration. A good board chair will work hard to ensure that the board holds meetings that are truly substantive and has conversations that matter -- conversations about those big-picture issues. There is usually a large intellectual capital resident in the board, a resource that should be brought to big problems and issues. That is what governance is all about. When a crisis comes up that takes the board by surprise, board members are apt to blame management for not keeping them in the loop. I, instead, would blame the board - for permitting an ongoing operation over which it did not exercise appropriate oversight.

Fully engaging the board and its membership is hard work, both for the board chair and for the executive director; it involves preparation and the providing of information on a consistent basis and at a thorough level. But not only is it the right thing to do from the perspective of governance, it is manifestly of value to the organization. First, it brings the intelligence of board members to the fore in solving or preventing problems, or in creatively directing the organization's future. Second, trustees who are fully engaged are more generous with their own contributions, and more willing to be aggressive in fund raising.

There is a large difference between for-profit and not-for-profit boards. Read Jim Collins's Good to Great and the Social Sectors if you want to fully understand this. Or read Governance as Leadership: Reframing the World of Nonprofit Boards by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor for an even more in-depth look at how ideal nonprofit boards work. Governance as Leadership should in fact be required reading by all board chairs. The model it presents must be adjusted somewhat for small orchestras where the board does some of the work that would be handled by staff in larger orchestras, but the general principles in this book are applicable across all sizes and scopes of nonprofit organizations. If those principles were absorbed into the culture of orchestras, it would be a very good thing. The situation of board members feeling out of the loop is one that I would like to run into far less often than I do.
September 25, 2008 2:14 PM | | Comments (2)



Thank you, Henry, for bringing up this critical topic. I think it's important for organizations to find ways to more fully engage board members and other volunteers. As you mention, if people are more committed and involved, they are more willing to give time and money, and to stick around for the long-term. It can have a big impact! I also agree with encouraging discussions that matter at meetings, as opposed to just listening to committee updates.

In my experience, it seems like it's the easy thing to do to make key decisions "behind the scenes" or outside of meetings. But then board members begin to think they're just taking up space around a table. And when you feel extraneous to the process, the "heart" of the activity, it's easy to become demotivated--not what organizations want leadership to be!

If you have advice on how to encourage involvement and creative thinking at the board to make people feel their opinions and expertise are valued (as opposed to feeling like they're stepping on staff's toes)...I'd love to hear it!

I believe that a very smart way to run board meetings is to devote the vast majority of each meeting to a single topic, which can be discussed and explored in detail. The biggest problems with board meetings is that they try to cover all subjects of "importance" - and as a result really cover none. Do the math: if you have 25 people in the room and give a top 20 minutes of discussion, everyone has less than one minute for input. That doesn't make you feel like you really contributed much to a discussion. But if you devote a full hour or even 75 minutes to one topic, with preparation for the discussion by staff and the relevant board committee, AND if you take the further step of breaking the board into four or five small workgroups to discuss the topic separately, now everyone really gets their teeth into it, and the board members leave a meeting feeling that they made a difference by being there.

Committee reports are given in writing, not verbally, unless they require a board action. Finances can be summarized unless there is a change or a crisis.

Then you take the 'main topic' and devote the rest of the meeting to it, ending with a prioritization of all the ideas that came up (you can't do them all even if all are good), and assignments of who is responsible -- it can't be only the executive director.

Possible topics are endless: How to raise more money in the annual fund from individuals; Improving community programs; improving educational programs; improving single ticket sales; improving corporate fundraising; what are our next steps artistically; how do we feel the board runs as an organization; That is a small list that could take up a year's agenda of board meetings. (I also believe that full board meetings can take place every other month and be two hours long, with this one real discussion lasting 90 minutes or more), and that is more effective than monthly meetings that last 60-90 minutes.


Thanks for this timely article. Just hung up with the board president after a long discussion on how to better engage the whole board in the organization. Fiscal year is ending and the new year looms ahead of us with great possibilities and challenges. This article underlines much of our discussion. All the books have been ordered - just had coffee with a colleague who was quoting 'Good to Great'. I am forwarding this article to the board president which will help underscore for him that he is on the right track in his thinking and leadership.

Hope all is well and that you can come back to Wisconsin's Door Peninsula sometime soon.



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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on September 25, 2008 2:14 PM.

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Music Director Residency: Quality Time Is What Counts is the next entry in this blog.

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