Guest Series: Developing Your Board Leadership

Posted on by Dodge

If you’ve been following along the last several Mondays, you know that we’ve been hearing from grantees who have recently taken part in our Board Leadership Training Series workshops and are now telling their stories about how they are applying what they’ve learned to their organizations. Today, we hear from Eddie Rogers of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey who discusses his experience joining the board as it was going through major transition and how they’ve managed to increase both the quality and the quantity of their work.

Hard at Work at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

photo of eddieWhen I was approached to join the Board of Trustees of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, I had some not-for-profit board experience, but I had not been involved with any arts organization, and there was not much that could be said of my specific qualifications. The most important factor may have been that I was filled with a passion for William Shakespeare and for the classic theater that is grist for the Theatre’s mill. I had been a subscriber to the Theatre’s season for six or seven years, and I was a modest donor with a willingness to contribute more of my “treasure” to the Theatre’s mission. I knew one other Trustee and I had some acquaintance with Bonnie Monte, our remarkable Artistic Director. I soon found out that there was much about the Theatre’s mission of which I was unaware.

A word about our mission: utilizing a company of loyal and talented Equity actors, the Theatre produces a season of six to seven plays on the “Indoor Stage”—the F.M. Kirby Theater on the Drew University campus—and one play at the “Outdoor Stage” of the Greek theater at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. These productions are drawn from Shakespeare’s canon, augmented by other classic works.

In addition, the Theatre is an educational institution. A touring company called “Shakespeare LIVE!” carries skillfully abridged versions of Shakespeare’s favorites to schools throughout New Jersey and beyond. We operate a Summer Professional Training Program offering comprehensive theatrical training, both performance and technical, to young people seeking a career in the theater. And finally, we provide an introduction to serious acting for middle and high school students through our Junior and Senior Corps programs. The Theatre also offers residency programs to local schools seeking a more concentrated Shakespearean experience.

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F.M. Kirby Theater at Drew University

The Board is as focused on the success of these educational programs as on the more “public” aspects of the Theatre’s activities. Not only do they open the way to a broad range of potential financial support, they also enhance the institution’s stature and, most importantly, lay the foundation for a new generation passionate about Shakespeare.

When I joined the Board , I was advised that the Board of Trustees had recently been through a certain turmoil, in the course of which about one-half of the Trustees had resigned. The Board was in serious need of “reconstituting,” and one could say I was part of the “reconstitution.” In terms of board “lifecycles,” the Theatre was pretty definitively in the “Turnaround Stage.” We were facing significant challenges:

• Finding new Trustees to fill the many vacancies;

• Financing ongoing operations in a hostile economic climate;

• Finding a way to eliminate a cumulative deficit;

• Finding new support facilities to replace the distant and dangerous scene-building facilities we had been utilizing.

The “old” Trustees (most of whom had considerable tenure on the Board) strongly believed that proper Board organization was critical to addressing these issues. The Board Committee on Trustees (since renamed the Governance Committee) had the unenviable task of assuring an adequate Board membership, and during 2009 virtually doubled the size of the Board. I might say in passing that having been in the position of attempting to recruit not-for-profit board members myself, I regard the accomplishments of this Committee and the Board’s leadership as awesome. The recruitment of quality Trustees was critical to the Theatre’s fundraising goals, but it was also important to find role players to spread the Theatre’s message. The Board was rigorous in defining the qualities required from any new trustee and unwavering in ensuring that all newly-appointed trustees met the very highest standards that we had set. Whatever success we have achieved has been the result of a constant review and culling of the candidate list by the Governance Committee and remorseless focus on the goal by a core of Trustees and the Artistic Director.

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Shakespeare Live!

Once the new Trustees were in place, the Governance Committee had responsibility for their mentoring, their committee assignments (while assessing the Board’s overall committee structure), succession planning, and an ongoing revision of the by-Laws, which were implemented in December of last year. All this gave recognition to the belief that progress on the substantive issues facing the Theatre would proceed from a sound Board organization. By the end of 2009, there were nine Trustees (out of twenty active) who had not been on the Board at the beginning of that year. Even more important, three of the new Trustees chaired standing committees. Not only had we almost doubled our board size, we had significantly enhanced the quality and capability of the governing body.

Managing the Theatre’s financial position in the current economic environment has been an ongoing challenge. The Finance Committee has met regularly to monitor cash flow from operations. A priority has been filling the staff position of general manager, as the de facto chief financial officer, which was accomplished late in 2009. This has had the effect of relieving the Board of much of the details of the Theatre’s finances, and to focus on oversight.

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Summer Professional Training Program

Locating support facilities for theatrical operations has been a top priority. We had an inadequate and dangerous facility in Irvington as our scene shop, which we closed even before the 2009 Season was complete. Once again, the Board had established a committee known as the Facilities Task Force to work with real estate professionals to locate and assess properties and the financial terms. The Task Force helped to find temporary space much closer to the Kirby Theatre, but the search continues for a facility that can accommodate our support facilities, as well as teaching facilities and office space.

Our Board President has been a driving force in making progress on our fundamental issues. At a Board Retreat in January we reviewed the Theatre’s scope of operations and discussed the development of our strategic plan. We activated a Strategic Planning Committee as a standing committee, and expect soon to be in a position to review and approve a plan for the next five years. We are implementing a plan to confront our mounting capital needs and to create an endowment. This year, for the very first time, we conducted a performance review of our Artistic Director. Roughly contemporaneously, as was only fair, we conducted a “self-survey” of the Board’s own performance, strengths and weaknesses.

Looking back at the issues raised in the “Board Bootcamp,” I feel we have addressed many of them. We have defined in much detail our needs as a board. We have undertaken a gap analysis and continue to seek to fill these gaps with our ongoing, continuous recruitment effort. We have redrafted the entire suite of governing policies. We have not only established an assessment process for the artistic director, but also a self-assessment for the board. We have improved the effectiveness of our Board meetings by assigning timings to each agenda item, and moving the agenda along. The entire board is engaged in the fundraising efforts, with 100% contributing financially, significant contributions in terms of introducing friends, and ongoing involvement in the cultivation and stewardship processes.

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Junior and Senior Corps Program

Our near-future agenda includes reviewing our mission statement to create a shorter version, formalizing an audit committee, updating our long range strategic plan and addressing succession planning for the board and for the artistic director. In summary, the Board has embraced its role as the governing body of the organization and takes its responsibilities very seriously.

We are very grateful for the support of our mission by the Dodge Foundation. We have the highest respect for the Foundation’s belief in the centrality of the attentiveness and competence of the board of trustees to the success of a nonprofit’s mission. We at The Shakespeare Theatre hope we can be a solid, positive example of that belief.

Eddie Rogers retired ten years ago from a long career as a Wall Street lawyer and bank regulator. When he is not attending productions at the Shakespeare Theatre, he enjoys golf, fly-fishing and the care and feeding of his wife Marilyn and their Cairn Terrier Hamish.

Photos courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

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