Even 14 years ago there wasn’t the complexity of responsibilities that Boards are now expected to take on and I fear that in an ever-changing and fast-moving world it’s hard to expect the current system to deliver.
Of course the volunteer group usually has many qualities that equip it for the task: a good range of the necessary skills, an effective understanding of its role and responsibilities and a passion for the art that the organisation produces. It is the model by which the voluntary sector delivers. But, unlike the commercial sector, the NHS and school governors, there are usually no paid staff on the Board. And thus, the people who lead and run the organisation on a day to day basis and hold the knowledge, details and maintenance of the networks vital to the success of a cultural organisation, do not have a formal place at the highest table nor the ultimate responsibility that goes with it. (There can be exceptions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company where the Artistic and Executive Directors do have places on the Board – such exceptions have to be applied for to the Charity Commission and remain rare.)
This is all because the main model used in the cultural sector remains the company limited by guarantee which is also a charity; charity trustees have unlimited liability but as directors of a limited company they have the necessary protection (so long, of course, that they act with the right amount of care, skill and diligence).
But this means that as charity trustees they cannot be paid for their services as Board members – the voluntary sector is based on just that, that the trustees are volunteers. Of course this is in many ways exemplary: good citizens giving up their time, skills and knowledge to support an organisation because of their love and admiration for its work. But inherent within the system lies the question of diversity: is it overwhelmingly the older, richer, more established sector of society that has the time and means to do this? And are they necessarily the best people to oversee the innovation, the risk, the necessity to reach out to a wider breadth of audience, let alone the demands of new technologies? In many cases, yes, but I do fear that within the whole debate about the need for greater diversity within the cultural sector, one of the main obstacles lies in the make-up and attitudes of many Boards.
There are of course other models such as the Community Interest Company where directors can be paid, but these are more aimed at social enterprises where there is an element of profit which can be gifted back; most importantly they cannot be charities and an organisation would have to be very sure that their advantages outweigh the removal of charitable benefits before going down that route.
Or the American model, which is heavily targeted at rich individuals who buy their places on the Board and then are expected to Give, Get or Get Off. With that prime motive it’s difficult to see how Board members are expected to take a dispassionate and strategic overview and, unless public funding dries up completely, I can’t see it ever being adopted here.
Or there’s the European model, where public coffers are more generously open but the result is Boards stuffed with ex officio members from the state, region or city that offers the funds – in such a system many conflicts of interest must arise and the possibility of recruiting a diverse mixture of necessary skills is unlikely to be forthcoming.