The Right Board at the Right Time: An Interview with Lisa Barnwell Williams

Lisa Barnwell Williams is the instructor for our new Board Development course, offered this fall. Lisa has over 30 years of  fundraising experience, pioneering online prospect research and having led development efforts for several nationally-recognized organizations, including Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Ballet, and the Agnes Irwin School. Co-founder of Chanticleer Consulting and co-author of Building Strong Nonprofits: New Strategies for Growth and Sustainability, Lisa has given seminars and workshops to countless audiences around the country on various aspects of organizational development, fund development, and communications. You can read Lisa's bio here.

Recently, Lisa spoke with AES about why it is important for arts leaders to build board development skills. Her online course, Board Development will be offered in the Fall 2016 semester.

Why is board development important to an arts organization? Aren’t boards just comprised of rich people that write checks?

"If only! In fact, there are multiple answers to your question. First, for any nonprofit, the board—trustees or directors, depending on the organization—is legally responsible. It is the ultimate decision-making body, and executive staff, including even the founders of a new organization, legally serve at the board's pleasure. The board is not a rubber stamp, but an active—and indeed controlling—partner in mission.

"Second, the right board and the right role for the board is not the same for every organization. A brand-new 501(c)3 needs something different from a board than one with a long history; a community-based group needs something different than a national one; a collective of individual artists has decidedly different requirements than a presenting organization. Whether the board is an effective, congenial partner is determined by composition, organization, and engagement.

"Finally, after working for decades with organizations facing fundraising challenges, I can say confidently that any organization with a fundraising problem has, at some level, a board problem. Some of that, of course, can involve the check-writing role! But the board's impact on fundraising is far broader than that. In addition to determining the objectives and the programs that inspire donors to give, board members themselves should be every organization's best ambassadors, spokespeople, connectors and solicitors." 

What will happen in the Board Development course? What will students learn?  

"The Board Development course is a “sneak preview” of what really happens in arts organizations. So many arts professionals seem blind-sided by board relations issues when they first step into executive roles. This course will provide the fundamentals—what boards do, legal responsibilities, reasonable expectations—but will also help students develop perspectives and techniques that will enable them to work with boards as mutually supportive partners. We will explore what kinds of board members are best in various situations, and how to find and recruit them; how board organization, committees, and work plans can be fine-tuned for maximum impact; and options for board/staff communication and collaboration. Each student will complete a case study of a real-world board, evaluating an organization's governance with an eye to both structure and effectiveness."

Why is the board development course important for arts management students to take?

"No one chooses to lead an arts organization so they can work with a board! It's an unavoidable aspect of management that carries little glamour, and all too often an underlying sense of dread. But the fact is when the right board members are organized and deployed effectively to do the right work, they are among the greatest assets any organization can have. This course offers arts professionals a clear path to building a skilled, committed team functioning with a spirit of mutual respect and camaraderie that will facilitate and amplify impact."

The Arts Extension Service is offering the Board Development course this fall. Registration for our Fall 2016 courses opens July 20- sign up for our mailing list to receive registration reminders.