By Todd Cohen
The arts may be dancing on shaky boards.
At the same time that arts groups are enjoying a surge in revenues and philanthropic support, philanthropies and nonprofits are suffering from a critical shortage of board members.
While the two trends may not be related, they shed light on the need for philanthropies, arts groups and other nonprofits to develop their boards.
For philanthropies and nonprofits alike, boards decide where the organization is going, drive the flow of money and guide the staff.
Those are big jobs – and even more challenging in the face of a tough economy and critical social problems.
The challenges are more difficult still for many nonprofits and philanthropic groups that are struggling to equip themselves to be more businesslike and enterprising.
To thrive, nonprofits and philanthropies require the know-how of savvy and engaged boards that look like their communities.
The number of vacancies – 1 million to 3 million board seats a year – is compounded by the fact that the seats that are filled are occupied by people who are mainly white, male and middle-aged.
At a time when the struggling economy is taxing the resources of foundations and nonprofits, those that do not tend to their internal needs cannot expect to cope with community problems – particularly those embedded in the differences that divide us by race, class, gender, language, faith and ideology.
If board members look around the table and see either empty seats or mirror images of themselves – a profile that probably looks nothing like the diverse communities in which the charitable groups aim to be working partners – then the solutions that foundations fund and that nonprofits develop are not likely to take root in those communities.
Still, support for the arts — which trail education, health and human services as a funding priority for philanthropy — is thriving, according to two recent studies.
The second, by Americans for the Arts, says the nonprofit arts industry generates $134 billion a year in economic activity, including $53.2 billion in spending by arts groups – up 45 percent from 1992 — and $80.8 billion in event-related spending by arts audiences.
The arts clearly are big business and enjoy healthy support. Precisely because the arts are so important and have such a big economic impact, arts groups and the foundations that back them should take a hard look at their own boards to be sure they put their dollars to the most productive and creative use.
The arts often are treated as a luxury. Public schools, for example, are notorious for putting their arts programs at the head of the line when it’s time to face the budget axe.
But the arts are no luxury. Beyond the important economic impact they have, the arts enrich us in ways we cannot measure.
And as innovative initiatives such as North Carolina’s A+ Schools program are showing, integrating the arts into other disciplines can speed progress in the classroom by engaging students – a lesson that can be adapted to critical programs that target some of our most troubling social woes.
To fulfill the promise that the arts offer, however, arts groups and foundations alike need solid and diverse boards that recognize and are prepared to strengthen the critical role the arts can play in building a more civil society.