Does Your Nonprofit Arts Board Always Vote Unanimously?

Unending total agreement can hurt nonprofit arts groups. There are better ways to be a board.

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How much time in your board meeting do you want to spend on this?

There are five basic kinds of business decisions. In alphabetical order, they are:

  1. Autocratic (“I say”);
  2. Consensus (“We say, based not on majority, but on what’s best; those who disagree with the vote back the decision for the good of the whole”);
  3. Consultative (“I say, but with input, even if input goes against my decision”);
  4. Democratic (“We say, but with a vote, and the most votes on one side wins, and the other side gets nothing”);
  5. Stochastic (“Let’s flip a coin or use some non-related force”).

For the purposes of this column, let’s throw out #5, which is only acceptable when the stakes are relatively insignificant, as in:

“Which royal blue should we use in the logo, PMS 280 or PMS 286?”

If the answer is, “It doesn’t really matter” — and if it really doesn’t matter — then go ahead and use #5. But #5, as a decision-making tactic, should never be used in a board meeting, right? Boards, after all, do have other fish to fry.

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Let’s also note that none of the business decisions above feature the word “unanimous.” Which brings me to #14 on the list of fraught, flinch-worthy phrases from the nonprofit arts world: “unanimity as consensus.”

Unanimity often forms from downward bullying, imperial decree and the veneer of a search for consensus. It tells stakeholders that there was no discussion and no passion involved in a key choice. When no argument occurs, can one really describe unanimity as a decision? One does not decide obvious matters: one accepts them. Board need not vote in unanimity that an arts organization has decided that Earth is a planet. It accepts that fact and moves on to decide on strategies it will take to make Earth a better planet.

Unanimity neither connotes consensus nor promotes consensus: it promotes intimidation in the guise of leadership. Too often — at least among the many arts organizations with which I have worked and consulted — unanimity is actually a tool for inaction. The question, “If everyone does not agree, why don’t we table this discussion for a month?” does not coax tough decision-making, and does not move an organization forward. It merely gives power to those who choose not to act, the easiest and happiest choice for all in the room.

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Easy and happy, you say? To put this in perspective, many people have the same reaction to tabling a discussion as when someone cancels a meeting. Who doesn’t love a cancelled meeting? It feels like a mini-vacation! Not deciding is a hell of a lot easier than deciding.

Yet, boards of nonprofit arts organizations almost always vote unanimously. And when they do, they may have a big problem. As nonprofit writer Hardiman Williams once wrote:

Frequent unanimous votes with little or no debate could be a sign of one or two problems: a disengaged board and/or a lack of diverse opinions among board members.

Unanimous decisions reveal the distinct possibility that the wrong people are making them. In diverse arts nonprofit boardrooms (diversity, of course, meaning many different things) viewpoints vary over course, data, strategy, results, program execution, and, very often surprisingly, the purpose of the company’s art. These differences ought not to be squelched — or result in wild, personal screaming matches. In a civil boardroom where the meaning of the mission is compelling, narrow and well-defined, these discussions can lead to better practices and results.

Remember: in the organizational chart of every arts nonprofit, the mission is at the top. Think of it as the CEO. Everyone, including board members, serves it.

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Along with rejecting unanimity, there are other ideas that can help your organization move forward. I’m sure you have ideas, too — please add them to the comments section below. But please, just one request: only transmit your idea in the positive (“Do this”), not in the negative (“Don’t do this”). Ideas in the positive can effect positive change. Ideas in the negative can come across as preachy.

  1. Reward first ideas. Generally, more passion comes from first ideas, and as a result, more buy-in from those generating them. You might go so far as to make a point to eliminate fatigue from the decision-making process by agreeing never to enact the last idea in the room.
  2. Take responsibility for your disagreement by saying, “I feel this way…,” as opposed to “Let me play devil’s advocate.”
  3. Before the meeting, read the executive director’s report. Executive directors: issue your report at least a week before the meeting.
  4. Construct your strategic plan together. Remember: board members, with input from all stakeholders, are responsible for it. Yes, it may be ultimately scribed by one person, but it must not be written by one person — especially not your executive or artistic director.
  5. Calculate the financial commitment of any board meeting. To do this, just multiply $100 (an average to below-average estimate of consulting costs) by the number of people in the room, and then multiply that by the number of hours of the meeting. For example, if 12 board members attend a two-hour board meeting, the financial commitment by the nonprofit is 12 x $100 x 2, or $2,400. Then ask yourself a question: If your nonprofit is choosing to spend $2,400 for a limited two-hour window of in-person expertise and guidance, should you plan out the future or the past? Use board meetings like mini-retreats or strategy meetings, not tedious reporting sessions. When you do, you won’t need a major retreat to plan on top of everything else you’re doing.
  6. Board members are employees that make a salary of zero, so earn your keep. You are not signed up to be kibitzers. You have job descriptions and metrics by which to show all of your contributions of time, effort and money to the nonprofit.

Working with boards creates strange relationships for any executive or artistic director — and more so for those who handle both jobs — because they both report to the board as well as give assignments to the board. It’s a weird dance. But unanimity can make the relationship more stressful, not less, counter-intuitive as it may seem. It is both an autocratic and oligarchic relationship — the very antithesis of consensus.