Expert view: Good boards challenge themselves

When 11 arts boards met to establish their priorities, many different themes emerged.

It is amazing how much collective thinking can be done in six hours. As part of the Clore Leadership Programme's governance training scheme for arts organisations, 11 boards were each given the opportunity to work with three specialists for a day earlier this year, with the aim of unearthing their key issues and organising their priorities.

One board used the afternoon to explore where it should focus its efforts after a capital redevelopment project. It represented 'before' and 'after' positions visually by using pie charts and agreed that it needed a significant shift in board focus.

Others used the time to discuss the board's role in advocacy and fundraising. Many organisations had fundraising targets, but had not engaged trustees in developing them. The solution was to establish a new committee of board members, staff and specialist advisers. Others elected to prioritise their ambassadorial role by publicly celebrating achievements and making better use of contacts.

Succession planning was a recurrent theme, particularly in relation to the chair. There were discussions about the need for a clear and democratic process led by a nominations committee, and for set terms of office of between three and five years. Recruitment and induction processes were also touched on, as was the need to be more proactive about the choice of ex-officio members from nominated bodies such as local authorities and other funders.

We advised the boards to draw up time-tables that highlighted the key issues that would recur every year, such as risk, health and safety, budgets and business plans.

What struck me most was the desire of the boards to be challenged. The best boards will always challenge themselves. They will recruit that controversial member, carve out time to engage in strategic debate and view disagreement as a positive thing. And they will never stop asking the most important question of all: why does our organisation exist and what does it seek to do?

- Sara Robinson is a freelance arts researcher who helped deliver the Clore Leadership Programme.

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