A common and contentious management issue for museums and historic sites is the the role and responsibilities of board members and the staff. Frequent complaints I’ve heard are that board members are interfering in staff projects or lack interest in their role as leaders, or that staff is withholding crucial information from the board or is unable to make progress on major goals. Navigating these concerns requires a good hand on the tiller by both the executive director and board chair, but I’ve also found that a facilitated group discussion about roles and responsibilities is often just as effective.
In my years of service on several different boards, each was at a different place in their organizational development, which means the roles and responsibilities was different as well. An all-volunteer start-up organization operates differently from one with a large staff and a long-established set of activities. Boards are not all the same.
Board members also require orientation and training, which rarely happens. There doesn’t seem to be time or no one wants to undergo “training.” Yet, community leaders will move from board to board, assuming their roles and responsibilities are the same despite serving with vastly different organizations.
Rather than “training” or “orientation” for boards, how about an annual retreat to reflect on past successes and plan for the future, which includes some time for a self-assessment to see how you’re doing? Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland is developing their organizational capacity by holding annual retreats with their board and staff to think more intentionally about their work. These aren’t complex ventures and can easily be adopted by other historic sites, including small ones.
Last Saturday, I facilitated a discussion among the London Town board and senior staff on roles and responsibilities using a survey form developed in consultation with the executive director. It has two dozen statements that describe a role and asks for an opinion on who is responsible: the entire board, a committee, chair, executive director, staff, or unknown. Each person completes the survey by themselves, then we discuss each statement as a group. I’ll have one person start with their answer to the first statement, ask if others agree or disagree, and then have a discussion. Once we’ve achieved consensus, I’ll ask the second person to address the second statement and repeat the process. It took about 2-3 hours to complete the discussion and while it begins slow, it picks up speed as the group develops a pattern for the way they want to work together.
The advantage of this process is that a group of peers discussing and developing their own rules of operation–it isn’t someone lecturing them about what they should or shouldn’t do. Many already have experience with boards and can share their knowledge, and just need to figure out what’s appropriate for this specific organization, so any board member can participate whether they’re brand new or “lifers”. Secondly, the answers will vary depending on the organization’s stage of development, so it doesn’t feel like there’s a right or wrong answer. Be sure to present it as a routine “check-up” to see how things are going, not as a test. Finally, it helps develop consensus and identifies areas that need to be addressed. For London Town, they confirmed a process of making major decisions and discovered a need for more clarity on the role of committees.
You can design your own survey for your organization but you’re welcome to use or modify the one we developed for London Town. Do note that our statements were designed to address a wide range of issues for historic sites and are phrased to encourage discussion (a statement often has several verbs, such as “develops” and “approves,” to avoid one-word answers). Even if you don’t all agree, you’ve learned about each other perspectives and that helps immensely when you’re working together.