Creating strong boards - Museums Association

Creating strong boards

Getting the right structures in place is vital
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Rebecca Atkinson
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The old Chinese proverb, "A fish rots from its head down", can be used to emphasise the importance of boards for the health and success of an organisation.

“It’s a huge strategic error for a museum not to have an effective board that is focused on the purpose of the organisation,” says Andrew Lovett, the director and chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley.

An ineffective and disengaged board can be dangerous. But, at the other end of the scale, is a board that is too hands on and interferes with the day-to-day running of the organisation.

Iain Watson, the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam), says a good board should support and challenge a museum’s executive: “It’s a delicate balance. You need to have strong relationships between the board, the museum’s management and staff, and everyone must be valued. A board must also be prepared to have an active involvement with, and commitment to, the museum.”

Adrian Green, the director of the Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire, agrees that a partnership between the board and the museum is vital. “It can’t be a case of ‘them versus us’,” he says. “If you’re not all working for the same side, then you have to be prepared to sit down and ask why that is.”

Reviews

Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire underwent a governance review and skills audit last year. As well as identifying a number of skills gaps around fundraising and commercial activities, the review resulted in a number of changes to the board’s structure.

“We’ve reduced the number of meetings from every month to alternate months, which is less of a burden on everyone’s time,” says Sue Shave, the museum’s director.

Twam, which has a committee made up of representatives from four local authorities, Newcastle University and the Ministry of Defence, also undertook a governance review last year. Watson believes that the relationship between the chief executive of a museum and the chair of the board is key to ensuring the health and strength of the wider organisation.

He also recommends that museums provide training for new trustees: “Ask people what their development needs are.”

Board duties

Many museum directors serve on boards themselves.

“I would encourage every executive to become a trustee of another organisation,” says Tony Butler, the director of Derby Museum Trust. “You get to see how other organisations function, fundraise and connect with their stakeholders.”

Emma Anderson, the director of the Atkinson in Southport, agrees: “Anyone who has to work with a board really should try to serve on one. It’s not only good for your professional development; it also reveals what trustees need from an organisation and how they want to be treated.”

Anderson’s experience of serving on boards has fed into the development board she set up at the Atkinson. “People are always busy, so it’s important to be clear about what you want them to do,” she says. “And how you manage the flow of information is important – it’s not constructive to send board members lots of paperwork at short notice before a meeting.”

Structure

Salisbury Museum’s board has a two-tier structure, which Green says makes it easier to keep trustees engaged and get things done.

The entire board meets four times a year, while a management sub-committee meet every month. “The sub-committee is active and engaged on a day-to-day basis,” says Green. “We want the board to think strategically, and this structure allows us to do that and easily ratify things without lots of unnecessary discussions at board level.”

While sub-committees can help ensure the smooth running of a museum, they aren’t for everyone. The BCLM’s Andrew Lovett says that museums need to be careful not to abdicate too much responsibility away from the wider board. “A board is a collective, and accountable, decision-making body,” he says. “In my experience, having too many sub-committees can become very bureaucratic.”

Many boards have one or more trustees that are nominated to represent a particular body, such as the local authority, a university, affiliated trust or funding body.

Independent consultant Hilary McGowan believes that nominated representatives are a potential problem for boards, because the potential conflicts of interest are not properly understood.

“Too many [nominated representatives] see being on a board as a perk of the job,” she says. “They think they are the voice of the body they represent, but the Charity Commission’s guidelines are very clear on this: they must attend meetings as a trustee first and foremost and declare any conflicts of interest.

“The other issue is that they are taking up seats that could be used to diversify a board or bring in a broader range of skills.”

Tony Butler doesn’t believe it is a problem for museums to have nominated representatives from the local authority on a board, as long as they understand that, when engaged in museum work, they are a trustee first and a councillor second.

But when the Derby Museum Trust decided to campaign against proposed cuts to its local authority grant last year, politics did enter the boardroom.    

“That sort of conflict often occurs in boards, especially those of museums that have recently moved from local authority control to trust status,” Butler says. “But the strengths of nominated representatives outweigh the negatives – they are great advocates for the museum and have great sway with the council.”

When museums do have nominated representatives on their boards, it’s important to ensure they have read the Charity Commission’s guidelines and fully understand their responsibilities, says McGowan. “If they are not prepared to do that then the museum should have the right to say they are not suitable to be on the board.”

Links

Association of Independent Museum’s guide to governance in independent museums

The Charity Commission’s guidelines for trustees



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