Sheri Flanders conducts a workshop. Credit: Courtesy Flanders Consulting

Build Back Better as a concept isn’t limited to federal legislation. As nonprofit performing arts organizations reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, they’re facing not only budgetary constraints from lack of earned income at the box office, but renewed and heightened calls to address deep-rooted systemic issues of racial injustice, sexual harassment and abuse, and other issues of unsafe and underpaid working conditions. (Some of those issues have been centered by We See You White American Theater and Not in Our House.)

One thing I’ve noticed, particularly when controversies over the leadership and practices at arts organizations become publicized on social media, is that the role of the board of directors or trustees often seems invisible, even as artists ask other artists to divest themselves of working at institutions deemed problematic. 

And yet, the board is literally where the buck (and everything else related to the running of a nonprofit) stops and starts. As the National Council of Nonprofits states, “Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.”

In practical terms, though, how are boards preparing themselves to deal with the onslaught of new realities, both fiduciary and in terms of crafting a broader vision of social justice within their organizations that supports every aspect of the work? Obviously, this isn’t just an academic question for us at the Reader as we move into nonprofit status with a new mission to create and curate “political and cultural coverage by and for Chicago, including highlighting underrepresented communities and stories.”

I talked to a few people who have experience being on boards, as well as creating training and advocacy programs for board and staff at nonprofits, about what’s happening now to help board members become more conversant with the language of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion); to better understand their responsibilities in all areas pertaining to HR (and DEI is of course not separable from HR issues); and to build more support as organizations reexamine their practices and mission.

Teresa Eyring has been executive director for Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for nonprofit theaters in the United States and the publisher of American Theatre magazine, since 2007. Prior to joining TCG, Eyring spent decades working with nonprofit theaters across the U.S. 

“TCG has been working on equity, diversity, and inclusion matters for a number of years, and it was in 2012 that the board literally made it a strategic priority,” says Eyring. “We could see that the theater field was replicating some of the weaknesses of the larger society that exists in every other sector around structural racism, around sexism, homophobia, transphobia. And we said, ‘Our theater sector needs to model a pathway forward that is safe and inclusive for everyone.’”

Eyring points to a collaboration that TCG formed in 2013, the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute, with arts activist Carmen Morgan. (In 2015, Morgan founded artEquity, a training organization for arts nonprofits moving toward a social change model; she currently serves as its executive director and the organization’s work has been favorably cited by several people I’ve talked to over the years.) 

“The idea was that we would have cohorts of theaters that would participate in a three-year program in which they would receive racial equity training, but also develop tools and resources and action plans for their organization. That was mostly focused on theater staff, but there were some trustees who participated,” says Eyring. Since then, TCG has offered regular forums on governance for trustees and senior staff, as well as regular Zoom calls as part of a “trustee exchange” for sharing ideas and strategies.

But Eyring also notes that walking the walk requires an investment of money as well as time for nonprofit boards. “If it’s determined every board meeting has to have some kind of training or facilitated discussion, make sure you’re budgeting for that. If there’s going to be a program, don’t say, ‘We’ll do this when we get funding.’”

Josh and Sheri Flanders are freelance contributors to the Reader, but they also run Flanders Consulting, which works with nonprofits on DEI, board development, and other issues. When I reached out to them for their insights for this article, Sheri Flanders sent me some initial observations and cautions via e-mail. One of them was: “Training is expensive and time consuming, and companies won’t usually sign up for the recommended length/time commitment. ” 

In a phone conversation with Sheri and Josh, the latter (who has over 20 years of experience working in nonprofits) points out that most boards (indeed, many nonprofits, period) don’t have anyone who is well-versed in human resources to deal with personnel crises when they arise. 

“Usually as consultants we’re often brought in when there’s a fire,” says Josh Flanders. “And we’re not always told what the fire is,” adds Sheri. (In her e-mail, Sheri noted, “Executive staff tends to gatekeep for the board, so often the board isn’t aware of the details and nuances of their problems and don’t hear about them until they are on social media and in the press.”)

“We have to make an assessment,” Josh continues. “Number one, do we want to take this client? Can we help? Is it too late? And is this an organization willing to do the work? Because as you know, diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to not only exist at every level of the organization—within the board, within the staff, and within the constituents that they serve. There needs to be an environment where those discussions and those diverse candidates are welcome and can thrive.”

He adds, “Everything starts with the board. The board sets the tone for the organization. They assess the executive director’s efficacy. Hopefully they do an annual review of the executive director—not always. So the board needs to be able to have the ability to self-evaluate where they’re at and what their goals are and what work needs to be done.”

Sheri notes that sometimes DEI training (or other training, such as that targeted toward issues of sexual abuse and harassment) may not actually be where boards and organizations need to start, particularly if that training is being applied after a personnel issue has caused a major problem. “We might actually say, ‘Hey, we have some strategic changes that you should make within the organization first, then move on to very targeted DEI work.’”

But as she noted in her e-mail, “Boards tend to be way more conservative than the staff and they won’t always allow their trainings to be more in-depth. They sometimes aren’t ready to be challenged. We once were hired to do DEI for an org and when the board realized the training was going to push them outside of their comfort zone, they reassigned us to staff only. But true change must start at the top.”

Theatre Advocacy Project wants to quantify the HR problem, as well as provide solutions, for board members and staff. Founded by four theater artists and administrators with the mission to “create safe and equitable working conditions for all theatre professionals,” TAP released a report in August, based on interviews with 130 theater leaders across the country. The report found that 85 percent of the leaders did not have a formal HR reporting process in place. In a survey of 81 theater workers, 70 percent reported workplace abuse, and 94 percent didn’t have a place to report that abuse within the organization. 

TAP cofounders Colette Gregory and Caylin Waller both experienced sexual harassment at theaters where they were working and found that there were no satisfactory ways to report or address the problem. 

Gregory, who is chief learning officer for TAP, says, “The boards at theaters are usually the final line to go to when harassment takes place. Reporting structures have the board of trustees as the final deciding factor. So it’s so important that they have a good understanding around issues of diversity and inclusion and oppression and harassment. What we found in our work is that a lot of boards have received training, but the training that they have received has not been theater-specific and has not been specific on bystander intervention.”

Bystander intervention, Gregory explains, means that “when you are a witness to an incident of harm, calling out or calling in the behavior. What we use is the five Ds of bystander intervention.” Those five Ds: direct (“directly talking to the person who is doing the harassment”); delegate (“find someone else who works in the theater, maybe in a leadership role, to help you in that situation”); delay (“if you can’t act in that moment, what are some things you can do afterwards to support the person who’s being harmed?”); distract (“standing in between them and the person who is doing the harassment”); and document—the latter once again echoing the problem of who receives that documentation in the absence of HR, and what they do with it.

“What I’m trying to get out of the boards is to lead by example,” says Gregory. “I think from the organizations, they are looking for more buy-in on the diversity and inclusion, and anti-harassment and anti-oppression work that they’re doing, so that they can encourage them to put more line items in the budget towards that type of training. The understanding that the board really needs to lead is where I want to get them at.”

Waller (who is the CEO for TAP), notes, “We’re thinking about not just the people who are in positions of power, but how we can actually redefine and provide tools to everyone, and give everyone the competencies in creating safer and more equitable workplace culture.”

Working on transforming that culture, within the board and the larger organization, is easier when it’s not being done in reaction to a crisis. Jess Hutchinson, a longtime Chicago theater director, is also the engagement director for the National New Play Network, an alliance of theaters across the country focused, as the name implies, on new works. The company’s initial structure allowed each member theater to have board representation. But as the NNPN grew in size (there are now 37 core members, including local companies 16th Street, Prop, and Silk Road Rising), that became unwieldy. It was time to make changes.

Hutchinson notes that NNPN made the commitment to a new strategic plan in concert with anti-racism training from Keryl McCord (a former executive director for the League of Chicago Theatres and nonprofit consultant). “We were looking around that room, especially after having this opportunity to get some language and some history around the fact of systemic racism and institutionalized racism, and we realized, ‘Oh my God, we are an overwhelmingly white room right now.’”

Ultimately, what NNPN decided, says Hutchinson, was to “decouple” board service from membership in order to foster more diverse representation. “We had a group of leaders who are super invested in the organization and who have had significant power for a really long time and we said, ‘Hey, you know how we keep talking about one of the ways toward equity is to cede power? This is what it looks like. We have the opportunity to blow up this old structure in order to create one that is more equitable.’ And so that’s what we did.” Board members now come not just from the leadership of member NNPN theaters, but from a field comprising what Hutchinson enumerates as “core member theaters, associate member theaters, affiliated artists who are the alumni of our programs, and then ambassadors—industry leaders and people that we love and former staff members of other organizations.”

Hutchinson believes that the fact that NNPN approached their restructuring with intentionality and from a place of being proactive, rather than reactive to a crisis, made a big difference. 

“There was no panic. There was uncertainty, and a lot of curiosity, and a lot of really exciting visioning conversations, once we acknowledged that the possibilities of how we could actually structure this organization are endless.” 

She adds, “We’re theater people. We just had a conference all day yesterday about creating accountability and embracing change. And one of the themes that I heard over and over and over again in all of our sessions was, we practice imagination all the time, right? Like we make people fly, we make magic happen.”

But to keep that magic happening without harm, nonprofit boards will need to make an increasing commitment to understanding how harmful conditions arise, and how to address them when they do. 

And if not every board member is, well, on board with that? Eyring says, “If a board names anti-racism and building a more equitable, inclusive, accessible organization as a priority and there are board members who are fighting that in some way, like, ‘We talk about this too much,’ or ‘Why are we talking about this?’—that can’t be a negotiation. You’re there because you’re on board with that direction or you’re not there.”