Over 30 years ago, Dallas Black Dance Theatre created a new way to evaluate its board which has helped to codify board composition, policies, and behavioral values for long-term participation.
Now more than ever, it is important to understand the elements of successful strategies that fuel financial stability for arts and cultural organizations with a mission focused on primarily serving Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Arab American, and/or Asian American communities. In the recently released report, The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color, we explore the lessons to be learned about relevance and resilience, as well as about community and the unique challenges these organizations face.
In our research, arts leaders emphasized the significance of a high-functioning board as a key short-term outcome. While the composition and role of board members may change with an organization’s age or budget size, high-functioning board members were commonly described by all as willing to leverage their networks, advocate on behalf of the organization, actively participate, and mobilize to provide resources.
Zenetta Drew, Executive Director
We create an environment that breeds excellence through internal and public accountability for achievement of the organization’s strategic vision. That’s what allows the financial success to flourish. As the organization grows in size and moves through each new phase of organizational development, we create new policies and practices that do not follow many of the traditional nonprofit practices but are tailored to meet the needs and results desired by the organization. We support excellence with a number of tenets that we’ve put in place. One tenet created early in the organization’s plan for sustainability was to develop a comprehensive board accountability report that manages membership retention, volunteer participation, parity, and/or removal from the board.
Created in 1988 and the first in the nation, our board report card allows the organization to meet and manage its goal of 100% participation annually, whatever the approved board giving level. This participatory process in resource development sets the basis for revenue and budget goals, increasing in all areas where the board has resources. In 1995, the board decided to elevate the excellence standard over traditional business operating paradigms by making innovation, strategic risk, and development of new “thought leadership” in the arts industry a part of the organization’s strategic plan and annual performance requirement of the executive director. DBDT has introduced 14 new thought leadership ideas into the industry over the past 30 years.
To ensure a focused and aligned financial and budget management process, in 1990 the organization instituted a line-item budget and cash forecast with detailed accountability for staff and board that also includes a line-item written operating plan that is a required component of the board approval process. This limits the capacity for board members to redirect the focus of the organization’s budget achievement efforts toward introducing new ideas during the year that create disruption to goal achievement, and dilute the energy and fundraising focus of the board. New ideas are vetted for resources (both funding and personnel) required and considered for implementation during the next business cycle. Board members offering new ideas are asked to take responsibility to bring required resources to assist in implementation and can’t create their own initiatives for fundraising outside of what’s been approved. No board member or staff is allowed to make unauthorized approaches for fundraising without coordination with the development team. All of the success and communication with funders and donors is very tightly planned and managed.
Many board members for organizations of color and those serving on smaller non-traditional arts organizations don’t have the experience of being on a large-budget organization board, so they are extremely hesitant to ask for money, even though they understand that is part of their fiduciary responsibility. On this board, you can’t just show up. Small organizations of color need more than just time and influence; board member fundraising is a must and often there’s reluctance due to personal histories. With the transition of America’s racial inclusion and access to capital having changed significantly over the past 50 years, many individuals of color have watched their parents have to beg and ask society to meet their needs and have vowed to now never ask anyone for anything. Most small organizations recruit people who have a reservoir of resources but have not been armed with the proper resources and training to feel comfortable making “the ask.” In putting together a financial plan you have to look at the social and behavioral strategies that will embolden goals to be met. There are a lot of historic operating intricacies that were built for large white organizations regarding board policies, fundraising structures, and financial practices that don’t work for organizations of color and must be revamped to achieve a high-functioning organization.
We codified board composition, policies, and behavioral values. We look for capacity and skills – what do we need on the board? What are the infrastructure needs of the organization? When you have a business issue you need someone you can turn to with expertise. We don’t just look for money. We want no gaps in how the business is run. We removed term limits and limits on board size, and have allowed members who relocate to participate via technology since 1996. The board leadership structure is based on who can lead the organization given where we are and the environment we’re in. It’s always about “the good of the whole.” With most volunteers having limited time and many involved with multiple organizations, we sought to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in board meetings with a tightly structured, one-hour timed agenda. This practice has helped ensure prior preparation, problem-solving outside of meetings, and reduced opportunities for loss of meeting focus. This meeting structure has led to long-term board member participation (average 10+ years) and organizational sustainability and buy-in.
The mission of Dallas Black Dance Theatre is to create and produce contemporary modern dance at its highest level of artistic excellence.