SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


How Can Board Members and Leadership Work Together to Address Challenges?

  • Posted Nov 21, 2019

Author Zenetta S. Drew is the Executive Director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre and holds the position of Adjunct Professor in SMU’s MA/MBA Arts Management Program. She has served on more than 40 boards, large and small, and currently serves on the Advisory Board of SMU DataArts. Connect with her by visiting

If your nonprofit could consistently attract and recruit board members who could make your dreams come true, wouldn’t you do it?

As organizations grow and mature from the early beginnings and dream stage of the founder to a more developed institutional structure and status, the support needs and types of engagement may change but the attributes of the perfect board member remain constant.

Considerations in finding them are similar to those in choosing a dance partner: the person’s style may be different, but they must have the same level of expertise, synergy, and passion for the art form.

Likewise, selecting the right partner for a nonprofit board requires finding someone whose attributes create mutual respect, enable you to move in tandem and lead to a standing ovation for your performance together.

It Takes TWO to TANGO!

If you have ever seen a great tango performed, then you know “It takes two to tango!” One bad partner, no matter how skilled or well known as a soloist, can ruin a tango. To get the best dance partner in a board member is absolutely critical to your success; yet, how do you identify the most compelling attributes, whether a prospect is a millennial, Gen Xer or baby boomer?

Small organizations and those newly founded tend to have board members who do everything to help with staff needs and are usually friends and/or family of the founder, act as quasi-staff, use personal funds to support programs and have strong emotional ties to the founder’s ideas, artistic programming and organizational goals. Larger, more mature organizations tend to have professional staff and board members who are expected to engage more directly in fundraising. 

Over time, the requirement for increased giving and soliciting can create greater staff/board tensions and frustration for board members whose personal giving has leveled off. This results in ongoing financial rifts over spending and board members’ shift in focus to become increasingly more demanding about artistic program retrenchment, operational needs cost-cutting and reduction of staff. This results in staff/board morale problems, alienation and stagnation of the organization.

In the rush to increase financial support and enhance organizational status, mistakes are usually made in the selection of new board partners because of an unbalanced focus on a board prospect’s personal attributes (e.g. wealth, community connections/profile/influence) without considering their passion for the work, personal agenda and personality. A “right pocket-book” may not be a “right fit” for enhancing the organization’s effectiveness. Likewise, the most influential person on a board is not the one with the greatest financial capacity, but the one with the loudest, most negative voice.

A “right partner” will:

  • Have an interest in the well-being of the organization over their personal ego and engage with energy and a sense of purpose.
  • Make a firm commitment to the organization’s mission and be willing to work diligently to find the resources it needs.
  • Be willing to support and trust the organization’s staff and management.
  • Have a concern for the financial health of the organization and personally support, solicit and advocate on its behalf.
  • Maintain a positive attitude, and be open to change when circumstances require it.
  • Have the ability to make good decisions based on facts, data and business principles,
    not emotion and past experiences.


Once selected, almost all new board members come to the organization with good intentions, but converting good intentions into good results is the job of the organization’s board and staff leadership.

Just like a great dance partner needs to rehearse, a great board member will need to not only be provided with new member orientation but will also need to learn the steps and style of your specific organization. After learning the steps and style by evaluating how a specific organization fits into the industry, they must then learn what their role will be in your organization’s board choreography (e.g. oversight, fundraising, promotion) and how their performance is not expected to be a solo or improvisational act.

This is done by ensuring that board duties, communications, structure, financial commitment, fundraising goals and accountability are well defined, understood and mutually agreed upon between the group’s leadership and the board member.

Lights, Action, Showtime!

Even taking the steps above, with the rapid erosion of financial bases, fiscal instability, and the vicious cycle of doing more with less, many board members are still unclear about ways to be fully armed with facts, data and resources to guide their efforts. With limited capacity to better understand the most effective strategies to raise more money, they are often left to take the fundraising stage with emotion and passion, but lacking true confidence.

For years, financial statements and budgets were the primary financial tools available to develop and evaluate fundraising plans and benchmark the results of an organization’s strategies and goals. Staff were often hesitant to be fully transparent for fear of negative criticism regarding their performance or possible board member overreach into operations. Making board members feel successful in their performance requires new tools and resources to guide their efforts, create greater impact and infuse confidence.

A Data-Driven Performance

Three years ago, SMU DataArts launched a premier fundraising tool to help board members and staff gain greater insight into local and national arts sector trends. The KIPI (Key Intangible Performance Indicator) Dashboard tool offers benchmarks for investment and return on fundraising as well as providing the capacity to compare your specific organization to others that are similar. 

For three years, Dallas Black Dance Theatre has used its KIPI scores to identify how we perform compared to 50% of organizations like ours nationally. Using this free online diagnostic tool, we are able to make better decisions on specific drivers and identify ways to improve our return on fundraising investment.

Specifically, an analysis of our scores for unrestricted individual contributed revenue compared to expenses helped us justify and create a positive narrative around the need to sunset a popular 22-year-old annual fundraising event that honored the organization’s founder. Armed with data regarding competitors, community socio-demographics and community arts and leisure characteristics, we were able to re-invent our board fundraising event and create a new one that is mission-centric, targets our core demographic group and attracts the next generation of donors, supporters and audiences.

The Ovation

Board members and staff who collaborate and use data to undergird strategies, plans and actions to meet organizational goals can increase board engagement and participation in accessing resources for the institution, reduce anxiety and controversy, objectively differentiate between excellent ideas and those that potentially propagate waste, and improve existing initiatives.

This results in a win-win for staff and board fundraising efforts and a standing ovation for the organization.

The KIPI Dashboard

free, diagnostic tool that provides your organization's financial and operating performance results relative to organizations like yours nationally so you can assess health and sustainability and hone strategic decisions.

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