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How to prioritise the future-thinking role of the board during times of crisis

By Rowena Price

On the day that the Guardian reported that The Old Vic is in a perilous financial position with no safety net, and in the week following the sad news that Nuffield Southampton Theatres has been placed into administration, cultural boards everywhere are grappling with fundamental questions about the future of their organisations in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.

On 13th May 2020 the Cultural Governance Alliance (CGA) and Clore Leadership hosted a webinar for which almost 200 cultural leaders from across the UK signed up. The event explored the governance question of the day: in a bid to both survive and thrive, how do you prioritise the future-thinking role of the board during times of crisis?

The session was Chaired by Keith Arrowsmith, with panellists Prue Skene CBE, Althea Efunshile CBE and Louise Mitchell.

This article summarises some of the key points* discussed - the full recording is available to Members of the CGA - join us today if you haven’t already.


A few months into the crisis, many trustees and executives are still dealing with short term operational priorities whilst the knock of longer term strategizing grows ever louder at the door.

In the webinar, panellists Prue, Althea, Louise and Keith shared their reflections and experiences of governance during a crisis, covering vital topics including finances, communications and operations

  • Stay on top of the finances

    • The main responsibility of the trustees is to keep the organisation solvent. This may seem obvious, but in time of crisis it is especially important to have a grasp of the details as the position and finances of the organisation are likely to change more rapidly.
    • With the likelihood of more frequent updates to finances and financial decision making, it is also vital to make sure your financial controls and accurate minute taking are happening in practice - take the time to check that this is the case.
  • Use reserves - but with a replenishment strategy

    • Whilst many organisations may be utilising reserves (they exist for times of crisis, after all) they should only do so if in parallel they are developing a robust strategy for replenishing the coffers. It is prudent and important to give time and energy to that parallel pursuit to ensure the short term fix doesn’t spell the end of the organisation longer term.
    • On the whole, funders are being sympathetic and accommodating to organisations facing very serious challenges and difficult decisions. Organisations with past experience of managing high risk situations may be better off at this time - either way, timely conversations with funders, with the board playing a strategic advocacy role, are the order of the day.
  • Communicate with clarity and consistency

    • The quality of your internal relationships is critical. Central to this is clear and consistent communication within the Board of Trustees, between the Chair and the Chief Executive, and between the Board and the staff team. This will allow you to keep things moving forward, and ultimately create the collegiate conditions within which strategic thinking (and action) will flourish faster.
    • Pay special attention to the executive team - are they okay? What challenges are they experiencing? Have you praised them for what they are doing well? How can you take them on the journey with you? A balance of formal and informal communication will help galvanise the entire team, Trustees included.
    • But beware bombardment and ad-hoc comms - especially in smaller organisations where, proportionally, Trustees may be more operationally involved at this time.


Boards can use trial and error to set priorities in such an unstable and unpredictable environment. As the new normal sets in, the following tips can help Trustees maintain a grasp on what is important when it comes to steering the ship in the right direction.

  • Prioritise time to think, not just do

    • Challenge yourself and your Board to clear the space and protect thinking time, especially when it feels like you don’t have any. Strategic thinking for future development demands reflection time as well as ideas and actions.
    • Boards can use their position to facilitate a shared space with the executive team, to keep a sense of purpose at the top of the strategic agenda. How is the connection with audiences being managed? Are plans in line with the organisation’s mission?
    • This space-making is also vital for working out the measures of success. When the situation is still changing at a pace, data and metrics may only be fragile aids to decision making. Give your Board permission to be open minded and agile in their strategic thinking.

    • Useful questions for reflection might be:
      • What’s the purpose of keeping going?
      • Is the nature of thinking on our Board sufficiently diverse? If not, what can we do about this?
      • How can we work with our communities and stakeholders to be more imaginative than ever?
      • How will we connect with audiences in a different, more digital future?
  • Be okay with not always having the answers

    • No person or Board has all the answers. If you want to move from thinking about what’s happening now to what can happen next, accepting this will help create the space to ask useful questions, explore options and ask for help.
    • There’s a tendency to only look inwards in times of crisis, but it is vital to look over the horizon and see how we can help each other. Every organisation exists within a context - Trustees can benefit from looking outwards to steer the organisation to deliver its purpose, and reinvent how it works when needed.
    • So take the opportunity to connect with your peers. By engaging with networks like the CGA, or by reaching out to local organisations and professional counterparts, unexpected opportunities to collaborate and innovate may well arise.

Moving forward

Here are the panellist’s top tips for you to take on board moving forward:

  • Louise: Stay nimble and be open-minded; think, then act - in that order.

  • Prue: The Board can and should be a step ahead of the Chief Executive - but just one step!

  • Althea: Approach your strategic plans in 3, 6 and 12 month chunks, and make sure you are artistically led.

  • Keith: Prioritise a balanced approach, be collegiate and be kind.

The arts and culture sector is lucky to have the governance structures it has. Many industries are battling through this crisis without any point of reference other than commercial rivals. .

The generous nature of the sector and creative expertise within it are strengths to be drawn upon. We hope you will continue to make use of, and share with your networks, the free resources that the CGA has to offer to support you on your journey.

This unprecedented challenge is also a superb opportunity for boards to show their value, to advocate for their organisations and the sector as a whole, and position their organisations for a new future.


*A note on the content:

The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A with attendees, which included a breadth of questions on finance, diversity and ethics, amongst other topics.

Whilst only some of the questions were able to be addressed in the time available, others will inform future content and engagement opportunities presented by the CGA.

The CGA will be organising more governance webinars for the Membership in the future - please email us with your ideas, requests and feedback.

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