The Corcoran announced in June that it is studying the controversial option of selling its historic Beaux-Arts home near the White House and moving to more affordable, flexible space somewhere else. At the same time, Corcoran leaders are searching for a new top director. And they are re-imagining the relationship between the gallery and the Corcoran College of Art & Design. The new vision, they say, will engage the public and attract donors.
Five outside experts share their views of how such transformations can work.
James E. Canales
Canales is president and chief executive of the James Irvine Foundation.
Having served on and chaired many nonprofit boards, as well as having been chief executive of a large foundation for nine years, I know that when partnerships between a nonprofit’s board and its chief executive work well, they create the conditions for high performance. A constructive partnership:
• Fosters engagement by the board. As the fiduciaries and stewards of the organization’s public trust, boards must be actively engaged in the key strategic issues facing the organization. As such, it is incumbent upon CEOs to shape board agendas in ways that create opportunities for board members to understand those issues, ask questions about strategic directions and then add value to the work of the organization.
• Ensures open lines of communication. Engaging — not managing — the board is one of the primary responsibilities of a CEO. That begins with frequent and candid communication that seeks the board’s involvement at the right level. If open, honest, two-way communication does not exist, the risks of miscommunication or misinterpretation are far higher.
• Demonstrates mutual respect. Far too many board/staff relationships are characterized by an “us vs. them” mentality. Staff sometimes view boards as an obstacle or necessary evil, and boards sometimes micromanage or second-guess staff decisions. That’s not a good starting point for a constructive partnership. The CEO plays the key role in setting the right culture in this regard. If mutual respect is lacking, it is worth asking whether the right people are engaged on each side of the relationship.
• Like any human relationship, the board/CEO partnership requires both parties to devote the time and care to cultivating and sustaining a high-functioning partnership. When done properly, the results for the organization and — more important — those it serves will have been well worth the effort.
Rebecca Hubert Williams
Williams serves on the boards of the Lantern Theater Company and the Duke Libraries.
Whenever a nonprofit such as the Corcoran faces financial challenges, eyes turn to the board of trustees and the role that its members — many from the business world — have played.