Good Board/Bad Board Part 2 – Board duties Vs. Staff duties

One of the most common issues related to non-profit Boards and their organizations is division of duties. While it is important to find board members with applicable experience and interest, it is also important to remember that a board’s priority is not to operate the facility on a day-to-day basis. Often referred to as “Flying at 50,000 feet,” a non-profit board should be setting policy, raising funds and acting as the fiscal steward of the organization. Where many boards get into trouble, is when they are “down in the weeds” of day-to-day operation/management.

One very succinct definition of roles and responsibilities that I like is that a board defines the “What” that should occur and the staff implements the “How” of how that mandate is implemented. For example, a board may decide that a particular type of programming would benefit the organization, community or potential stakeholders. This may be due to possible funding, political activity, or even personal preference. That mandate is then handed off the Executive Director and their staff to implement the specifics. It is not up to the Board to define the details of the program (film titles, specific performing acts, etc.), rather that is the role of the staff who are in tune with those aspects of the business and the facility. Following the implementation of said program the exec. Dir. Should prepare a report for the board to gauge its success or failure.

When board members become mired in the day-to-day details of operations and programming, they lose sight of their mission and the organization fails. Equally, staff members need to focus on the mandate of the board, and acknowledge that it is the board’s expertise that has guided the decision. When either the board or staff looses respect for the other party, irreparable damage to the organization can occur.

Some steps to insure a healthy board/staff relationship include:

• Clearly defined roles and responsibilities

• Familiarity between facility staff and board and understanding of duties

• Regular communication between the entities via Executive Director

• Recognition by staff that board members are VOLUNTEERS

• Recognition by board that staff members work very hard

Like any relationship, the one between an historic theatre’s staff and its board of directors can become strained over time due to work-load, specific personalities, and financial strain. A clear understanding and appreciation of each others roles and responsibilities will go along way towards avoiding conflict that may harm the institution.

A Note About Programming – Know Your Audience

Many historic theatre operators think they know their audiences to a “T”, but with declining attendance and decreased revenue can we really be sure we know our patrons?

When was the last time you polled your audience?

We all know that historic theatres have extremely diverse visitors depending on the program being presented, but it is crucial to not only be aware of these audience demographics and to attempt to maintain their patronage. There are several simple steps one can take to better “take the pulse” of the attendees at your venue that are not too time consuming nor expensive.

1)   Be there – It sounds simple, but simply being present when an audience arrives for a show and departs, (I’m speaking of management/programming/booking staff) will not only let you know who is coming to shows, but to give you a chance to interact with some audience members for an informal chat.

2)   Create a simple survey— Use volunteers to hand out a short 5-10 question survey to get some answers on their frequency of visits, etc. Offer a raffle prize to encourage participation and have golf pencils on hand to make it easy to comply.

3)   Analyze your data – Not everyone is a data junkie but there is so much information that can be gleaned from a simple review of attendance numbers, concession sales, social media interactions, etc. Spend some time with the data and see what it is telling you.

What you may find after a little research is that while you are serving some segments of your audience quite well, you are leaving other folks out in the cold. Your next step is to find ways to reach out to these “other demographics” and find a way to make them part of your audience. Strategic partnerships, targeted programming and outreach can all be brought to bear in growing a new audience without sacrificing your existing one.

Best Practices – A Few Words

Despite differences in location, audiences, experience of staff/Board of Directors, condition of the physical facility and other tangible differences between historic theatres, there are some important elements of operation, best practices in the industry, that can be defined, areas include;

• Patron experience

• Stage safety

• Business practices

In the area of patron experience, it remains crucial to deliver a quality EXPERIENCE to the patron every time they visit. Despite what we may all feel is the overwhelming positive of visiting our venue, more than ever it is easier, sometimes cheaper and more interesting to go somewhere else. How can we continue to enjoy the audiences we have worked so hard to bring back to our venues, to our downtowns? By maintaining a unique, positive experience from the ticket purchase (on-line, phone or in person) to the arrival at our venue with swept sidewalks, a smiling face at the door, clean floors, well-stocked restrooms, good concession options, quality performances/screenings, comfortable atmosphere (HVAC), assistance if needed and a “thank you” at the door when the patron leaves. It’s amazing how much of a difference customer services means and your patrons will appreciate it when they experience it.

It seems odd to even have to talk about stage safety given the complex and dangerous equipment many of us have on site, but often new staff members or board members are not aware of standard protocol related to safety in the most dangerous area of our property. Whether you are a “hemp house” or a modern facility with motorized, computer controlled rigging systems, there are thousands of pounds of equipment suspended above your head every time you are on the stage. Facility stage staff should define and implement safety protocol that MUST be followed by all staff. In short, don’t go on stage unless you have to, or have been told to. Equally, don’t operate equipment you have not been trained on as it is expensive, costly to replace and essential to the operation of the facility.

Historic Theatres practice their own unique business practices, not many other businesses invite people into a big room, serve them food & drink and turn off the lights hoping for the best. Along with patron experiences it’s important to maintain the highest level of business practices in relation to advertising, marketing practices, legal filings, hiring and firing of staff and outside sales and rentals of the facility. It is advisable to have specific guidelines for any institution so that a “brain-drain” will not occur with the loss of any staff, and many of these areas are common sense. Make an effort to establish a reputation in your community as a model business.

By following these simple best practices, your theatre has a better chance of surviving and thriving in the long run.

Good Board/Bad Board Part 1 – Define Your Board

Non-profit boards are unique and complicated entities. Non-profit Historic Theatre boards are no exception to that rule. In order to satisfy IRS requirements, 501(c) 3 organizations should follow the recommendations ( of the IRS which state:

The Internal Revenue Service believes that a well-governed charity is more likely to obey the tax laws, safeguard charitable assets, and serve charitable interests than one with poor or lax governance. A charity that has clearly articulated purposes that describe its mission, a knowledgeable and committed governing body and management team, and sound management practices is more likely to operate effectively and consistent with tax law requirements. And while the tax law generally does not mandate particular management structures, operational policies, or administrative practices, it is important that each charity be thoughtful about the governance practices that are most appropriate for that charity in assuring sound operations and compliance with the tax law.”

Unfortunately, there are few resources available to define specific skill sets and experiences that would be most beneficial to serve on historic theatre boards, not just non-profit boards. Each project is different, and each community has a unique set of individuals both qualified and interested in serving on boards.

A few ideal qualifications for Board service include:

Attorney – Legal experience, governance issues

CPA or bookkeeper – Accounting experience, tax returns, financial oversight

Small business owner – General business operations/management experience

Current or former Executive Director/501 (c) 3 – non-profit management

Entertainment professional – Experience in the industry, booking and contracts

Professional fundraiser – Fundraising experience (long-term & annual)

Banker, financial planner – Finance experience (endowments, investments)

Volunteer coordinator – experience recruiting and training volunteers

Marketing & PR professional – Industry contacts and experience

Of course it is not always possible to find all of these individuals, and it is also important to fill out some board seats with “worker-bees” who will help accomplish the good work of a board. The trick is to not just take any Board member “with a pulse”. Each position must be filled with an eye towards the larger organism; who can we add to create the most talented, experienced and prepared board to meet the challenges we MAY face as an organization.

Security at an Historic Theatre

Building Safety

It is important, obviously, to protect the asset of the theatre property at all costs. For that reason a monitored system is recommended that will notify the police as well as you in the case of an intruder or fire issue. It is important to also monitor closely the issuance of keys to employees as well as a regular re-keying of important spaces. Keep the “call list” up to date so the security company knows who to wake up at 4am when they get a false alarm. Even though I lived just 5 minutes away from the theatre, I was wide awake by the time I would get there to meet the police and would tend to charge in to protect my the theatre only to find nothing.

Patron Safety

In regards to patron safety at events, as well as performer safety, an important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as “crowd control”. You can “manage a crowd” but not control a crowd. Key elements of the management of an audience include the obvious areas of adequate lighting and backup generators, a trained staff, but also it is crucial to have the correct number of professional, trained security people on hand relative to the audience. Depending on the local rules related to security in a venue (and relative to liquor sales if applicable), a minimum of 1 trained security staff per 250 guests is a must. Some cities may require uniformed off-duty police officers, while others just want to see trained staff with no other responsibilities. At my former theatre, I hired out for security as opposed to having staff. This was due to liability issues as well as the uncertainty of a four-wall rental with limited self-presenting. With rentals, I would set the security based on the attendance and my research on the type of audience I was expecting. Of course the talent’s rider would often specify security outside the artist’s dressing room door, at the front of the stage, as well as in the loading dock area which is often non-negotiable.

The adjunct to this discussion is the use of volunteers as ushers and de facto first line of security. This is not an option. I had a rule to not put volunteers in harms way or in a position where they would be exposed to potential large problems. So, I kept volunteers away from selling tickets or concessions and did not ask them to get involved with security issues. They were expected to “observe and report” and I never had a problem.

Report from San Antonio – LHAT 2010 Annual Conference

For its 34th annual conference, the League of Historic American Theatres descended upon San Antonio from July 13-18. Despite major issues with the host hotel. The conference was successful on many levels. Attended by over 220 historic theatre operators and industry service providers, this annual sharing and learning exercise is always a great way to reconnect, recharge and experience the host city’s historic venues. Continue reading “Report from San Antonio – LHAT 2010 Annual Conference”

Herb’s dedication, passion and experience has yielded remarkable successes in many communities across the country and his ongoing work helps to ensure that our historic theatre resources will continue to thrive for years to come.

Kara Long
Former Executive Director, Strand Theatre, Delaware, Ohio; Executive Director, Egyptian Theatre, Coos Bay, Oregon