Amateurs on the Board of Directors

Get “Amateur” off the Board of Directors

A recent political upheaval at an amateur theatre group completely dismayed some of the members of the Board of Directors. The situation concerned a charge of harassment. The Board was counseled that harassment is taken very seriously these days, and requires special handling. Members of the Board were advised to familiarize themselves with the rules and expectations for an employer whose employee has made such a charge.
One of the Board Members was heard to voice the common complaint, and two others echoed it:
“I’m just an actor. I volunteered for the board to do my duty towards the company. Now you’re asking me to become an expert on harassment!”
The answer to the question you didn’t ask, ma’am, is yes. The Board of Directors is an entity. If it has employees, it is an employer, and has all the duties and responsibilities of any other employer in the province. As a member of the Board of Directors, you are as responsible as anyone else on the Board for what goes on.
In other words, you aren’t “just an amateur” any more. You are now a professional, an employer. Get used to it, and act accordingly, or you could find yourself in more trouble that it’s worth.
Just as an example. My wife was on the board of directors of a Concert Association in smalltown British Columbia, back when organizations like that had a place in the Arts community. Because of government cutbacks, the big shows like the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the National Arts Centre Orchestra weren’t touring any more. Since one of those big drawing cards was necessary to sell a season, the Concert Association was in trouble. People found it much pleasanter to sit at home on a snowy winter’s night and listen to CDs.
So the Association came to the final crunch. They had about $12,000 left in their slush fund to prime the pump for the next season. They felt they needed over $20,000 to fund a season that had a chance of selling. What if they ran short?
Well, the answer was that if they ran short, the members of the Board could be personally responsible to make up the shortfall.
Shock and disbelief!
Well, not much shock, because they were an experienced bunch, and pretty well knew that the writing was on the wall. So they made up a season with their $12,000, sold what tickets they could, gave the remains to a good charity, and “folded their tents like the Arabs, and as silently stole away.”
That was the professional decision. No “I’m just a volunteer!” weeping and wailing.
And it isn’t just money. I had an actor last fall who tripped on a stage brace, got an antibiotic-resistant infection in the foot, and might have lost her leg as a result. Fortunately she recovered, but can you imagine the mayhem? You know what happens when the lawyers get into it. They would sue the club, the Board of Directors, the stage manager, the director, the teacher who ran the theatre, the school, and anyone else they could think of.
Sure, liability insurance would probably have protected almost everybody. That’s a great reason to have an unsafe workplace. Board members are responsible. Read up on it, find out what you need to know.
And now a lot of you are thinking, “He may be right, but we can’t let our members hear this. We’d never get anyone to serve on the board!”
Don’t worry. I doubt if very many of the people I am talking about are going to read this. They don’t go on the internet and find out what’s happening around the province. They’re “just actors.” This post is aimed at the leaders who have the responsibility of creating the kind of board that can handle this kind of situation.
We have to catch this “I’m only an actor,” attitude, and change it to, “I’m on the Board, and I’m going to do a great job of it!” All of us who have spent time in the theatre business know that getting paid for what you do is no guarantee of professionalism. Likewise, being a volunteer doesn’t mean you can’t have a professional attitude, and take pride in your contribution.
The point is that the people who consider themselves leaders in these “amateur” organizations – yes, I’m talking to you – need to do a little educating and motivating of the new members of the Board. How many organizations have a workshop every year, right after the AGM, to tune the new Board members in to what’s going on? If one of these situations arises, how many of you know of a resource where you can get help?
If there are resources, maybe some of you can respond to this blog, and we can send the information around.
And the harassment case?  Well, in their “wisdom,” the amateur Board of Directors tried to make the problem go away by firing the employee. This had two effects:
1.    It pretty well confirmed that harassment did, indeed, take place.
2.    It made winning a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal a slam dunk for the employee.

So the club had to fork out a bunch of salary in lieu of notice, which cost them $1500 more than any amateur club can afford to throw away. And there was a time in the proceedings when a sympathetic ear and a letter of apology would have solved the whole thing. The whole lot of them ought to resign.