It’s the board, stupid.

board meeting

As the Berkshire Museum‘s (Pittsfield, MA) drama roils on, the museum world is thinking a lot about deaccessioning. And it should. The New England Museum Association even added a last-minute session to its annual meeting roster to talk about it. But here at Leadership Matters, the Berkshire Museum’s problems have made us think a lot about boards, board behavior, and organizational culture.

Remember Bill Clinton’s famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid”? How about a variation on that for the museum world: “It’s the board, stupid.”? How many of a museum or heritage organization’s problems, both financial and cultural, trace back to the board? Yes, yes, mission and vision are really important, but assuming they’re beautifully crafted in the beginning, they don’t have power on their own. They’re just words. The folks empowered to carry them forward into the world, to interpret them, to make the magic happen, are first and foremost, board members, and in a recent Stanford survey of non-profit boards 27-percent of board members lack a the depth of knowledge, and the engagement required to help their organizations succeed. Pretty shocking.

At larger museums, boards are often referred to with the pronoun “they,” as in “I wonder if they will give us a raise this year?” They are rarely seen except when they meet on site several times a year. Then, the most jaded staff make jokes about which board members will be able to find the meeting room. They have all the cookies, and yet it’s so easy for them to lose their way, literally and figuratively.

And who can tell them anything? They are the board. They hire the museum leadership that we write about each week on these very pages. This is not to say all museum and heritage organization board members are jerks. They are not. Many are exemplary human beings, but just as being promoted from assistant director to director doesn’t make you any smarter, neither does board membership. And yet so much depends on board members’ good work. So if you’re a board member, if you work with museum boards or if you’re a museum director who wields some influence, here are some things we hope you’ve tackled:

  • Does your board understand its legal responsibilities? Is that information available in their board handbook? Does your organization have regular check-ins about those responsibilities vis a vis the organization?
  • What kind of orientation does your board offer new members? If information is passed orally from member to member, you may want to re-think that. There is plenty of support for how to design a board orientation plan. We are particular fans of Joan Garry because of her clear, simple approach. You could do way worse than to take her advice.
  • Does your board have a strong nominating or governance committee? Do they understand your organization deeply and completely enough to know that being wealthy and well-connected might not be all your organization needs?
  • Is your board among the 52–percent of non-profit boards nationally whose work is done by a board within a board? If the answer is yes, do you understand when and how that happened, and whether it is still working?
  • Does your board have a respectful, collegial relationship with your executive director? Does it have succession plans for board and staff leadership?
  • Does your board understand that its primary responsibility is fiduciary? According to the Stanford survey only 42-percent of all non-profits have a “give or get” policy where members are required to donate or raise a particular amount each year. That might not work for your board, but even a modest required donation levels the playing field, and reminds all board members why they are there.

There is no nirvana of boards where everyone internalizes the museum’s mission, gets along with the executive director, contributes time and money and gets others to do the same, but if board members universally understood their trusteeship as work, based in a museum’s mission, perhaps there would be less disruption, less mediocrity, and more organizational success, and raising operations endowments by selling the collection would never ever be considered.

Joan Baldwin


Great Workplaces Are Committed to Great New Employee Orientation


This week jargon entered my workplace when we welcomed a new employee, and I was treated–after the fact–to the delicious term “onboarding.” If you work in a large museum, it may sometimes feel like a large ocean liner on which you set sail each morning only to return to your home port when the sun goes down. There may even be staff members who see themselves permanently confined to steerage, while people with the fancier positions–say, curators–frolic in first class. But onboarding? Really? I sometimes think that non-profit leaders believe that borrowing phrases from the Harvard Business Review makes them sound knowledgable, but like so much in life, actions need to follow words. So if you still call it orientation, but make an employee feel welcome and know she made a good choice joining your museum, that’s what is really important.

This was our third new recruit in three years so you would think that we would have the process down by now. In fact, you might hope we have a process. We don’t. That is to say HR does a magnificent job, and employees arrive at our doorstep, insured, benefitted, and parking stickered. The rest is up to us. Or you.

If you’re a small shop, the meet and greet of new employees may happen organically. You welcome an employee, show them their work space, meet with them to talk over the job, which presumably you did during the interview process, but now it’s for real, and then engage them with both colleagues and work. You may take them out to lunch or invite them to join volunteers for coffee. Barring water in the storage areas, your website being hacked, a major donor’s name misspelled, you give them a week or two to get their feet wet, to find their place, or whatever metaphor you want to use. You see them daily, you check in, you make sure they know both the parameters of their job, along with short and long term goals. You watch. You listen. And you hope they’re the self-evolved individual who persuaded you to select them in the first place.

If you’re a leader, a new employee’s honeymoon period is also the moment to understand (again) how your staff works, individually and collectively. There is a saying among English teachers that all novels are driven by a character leaving or arriving. Nowhere is that more apparent than the workplace. New employees sometimes bring a team’s strengths and weaknesses to the fore. So be alert. If you aren’t supervising the new team member directly, check in with those who are. Watch for all the values you want and believe your organization models: transparency, equity, imagination, self-awareness. Are your assistant directors or curators engaging the new employee in ways that are meaningful and helpful? Were reasonable goals set for weeks one and two?

Be mindful too if your new employee is a “first”–a first person of color, a first openly transgender or queer person, the first man in your education department or even someone whose physical handicap challenges your workplace in new ways. Being a first is a difficult role. Don’t make your new hire the spokesperson for her demographic. Presumably you didn’t hire her for PR value. You hired her because of her unique set of talents and abilities.

Why does any of this matter? Because your museum matters, not just as a collector and interpreter of art, history or science, and not just as a hotbed of ideas and imagination, but as a great workplace. You want to be the cool place to work don’t you? And searching, hiring, and training new staff is a time suck. You want them to stay, to flourish, to do great things. Not leave in tears and wonder why the heck they ever applied to your museum in the first place.

Tell us how you “onboard”. Or just tell us all the workplace jargon you can’t stand.

Joan Baldwin