Managing the Transition to a Community Board

Choruses undergo many transitions in their life span—founder transitions, music director transitions, transitions from volunteer to paid staff. Perhaps the most delicate of these important transitions is the evolution from a singer board to a community board. This shift from a board comprised predominately of singers who have responsibility for every facet of the organization to a governing body with broad community representation can be both a challenging and lengthy process.

Changes in a chorus’s life cycle, such as moving from the founder stage or hiring its first paid administrative staff, often result in a reexamination of its governance structure. Many organizations find that they need support from the community during these important transitions, and benefit from the perspective and oversight that community board members bring to the table.

Often the impetus for this change is financial, particularly when fundraising demands outpace the board’s ability to attract adequate resources to sustain the chorus. “The organization had been talking about making the change for many years,” explains Dianne Peterson, executive director of The Washington Chorus. “But change is always difficult. Expenses were increasing and we weren’t increasing our pool of friends—we were too internally focused.”

Some choruses envision a community board from their inception, but developing this type of board can take a number of years to achieve. “We always wanted community members as well as singers on our board,” says Fred Coleman, conductor and artistic director of the Seattle Choral Company. The Company, founded in 1982, currently has a board that is approximately one-half singers and one-half community members.

Sometimes the impetus for this change comes from a board member. Coleman notes that his board chair, a singer, “had always been beating the drum about diversifying the board.” Dianne Peterson suggests that the impetus for this transition usually occurs at a pivotal time for the organization, when there is a loss of a key volunteer or donor, or when paid administrative staff is hired.

Although the transition from singer board to community board is not easy, carefully planned steps can help a chorus manage the transition.

Planning and Implementing the Transition

A chorus that is contemplating a change from a singer board to a community board needs to think strategically and get consensus on a shared future vision and core values before it begins a transition. If the chorus does not have a current strategic or long-range plan, then the board needs to begin a strategic planning process to outline a strategy for achieving the chorus’s vision and mission. An outcome of the planning process is a focus on the organizational structures and systems that a chorus will need to ensure its future viability.

Ann Marie Lindquist, a consultant and a former chairperson of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, suggests that choruses need to take time to focus on the big picture and define what they need to accomplish. As a first step she suggests that choruses “separate management and operational tasks from board functions.” Fred Coleman notes that the development of the Seattle Choral Company’s five-year plan got everyone on the same page and not only provided more clarity about the vision and mission, but about what was needed from the Company’s board.

When there is an agreement about the need for a board transition, choruses should review their bylaws to identify any operational changes that need to be made before proceeding. “Our old bylaws stated that the singers themselves were the governing body,” notes Dianne Peterson. “The bylaws were changed to the more conventional model with an elected board of trustees.” Once the new bylaws were in place, the board members voted themselves off and a new board was formed with a few key individuals. They included several members from the previous board with connections in the community, as well as the board treasurer, who remained for continuity. The former board members established a Chorus Management Committee to take care of ongoing chorus duties (logistics, newsletter, music librarian, membership) that had been handled previously by the board. The chorus elects a president who serves as head of this committee and as an ex-officio member of The Washington Chorus board, a structure that continues to work well for the Chorus today.

Once an organizational strategy has been agreed upon, the focus shifts to defining the board composition needed to enable the chorus to implement its strategy. Many organizations begin this process by creating a matrix that lists the areas of expertise, resources, and reach needed on the board. This helps them determine where there are gaps in the current board make-up and then create profiles of individuals needed to fill these gaps. The next step is to define a board recruitment process and timeline and communicate it clearly to the board. It works best when all current board members have the same understanding about each step in the board development process and the role they each play in moving the organization forward. Identify leaders who will take responsibility for the implementation of the recruitment process.

Defining Board Expectations

Before beginning to recruit community board members, clearly define board member expectations, and make certain that singer board members have discussed the ways in which having community board members will change the board’s mode of operation. Fred Coleman notes that it is important for the chorus to understand that it will relinquish some of its authority when adding community members to the board. Thus, it is important to create a written board member job description or agreement that outlines specific expectations and responsibilities that is approved by the current board.

Don’t be timid about communicating board member expectations during the recruitment process. Most prospective board members are impressed with organizations that are clear and succinct about what would be expected of them as a member of the board. However, be realistic about how community board members will engage with your chorus board. “Don’t expect that all new members of the board will function in quite the same fashion as the previous singer board. Few are going to have the same passion as the singers themselves,” notes Dianne Peterson

When there is an agreement about the need for a board transition, choruses should review their bylaws to identify any operational changes that need to be made before proceeding.

Once community board members have been recruited and elected to the board, schedule a board member orientation for both former and new board members, before new board members attend their first meeting. This orientation should provide board members with an understanding of the way the board operates and background information about the chorus, plus allow some time for socializing and getting to know each other. Fred Coleman points out that it is important to provide community board members with ongoing artistic educational opportunities, so they will be clear about the chorus’s artistic vision and mission. Investing time in orientation and board education will help build a strong board, where community board members respect and value the art form and singer board members respect and value what community board members bring to the organization.

Once this board transition has begun, it is important periodically to assess how the changes are working, so that adjustments can be made in a timely manner. Effective nonprofit boards annually evaluate their work and set goals for the upcoming year. However, during the first year of a board transition, an assessment after 90 days that looks at both process and board member satisfaction will help ensure a smooth transition.

Finding Help and Lessons Learned

It can be helpful to find outside assistance with the process. For Dianne Peterson, bringing in an outside person “affirmed what we already knew, that it was time to make the change.” Fred Coleman attended a Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA) board development seminar that provided his chorus with a great deal of practical information. If there is a BVA program in your community, seek a BVA volunteer to assist with a board development project. Or ask a nonprofit colleague or board leader in your community who has experience with board development to assist you and share lessons learned. Chorus America also can provide experienced consultants to choruses for a much-reduced fee as a benefit of their membership.

Investing time in orientation and board education will help build a strong board, where community board members respect and value the art form and singer board members respect and value what community board members bring to the organization.

Chorus leaders who have experienced the evolution from a singer to community board relate that this transition is not a quick fix. “The process takes time,” says Ann Marie Lindquist. Diane Peterson notes that a successful transition needs the commitment of a group of key people to stick with the process through a number of years. She also counsels, “Don’t be too anxious just to fill slots. It’s okay if the new board is small for the first several years. It is more important to have the right people.” Fred Coleman agrees and advises keeping the size of the board manageable, while focusing on recruitment of diverse skills and community perspectives.

One thing not to lose sight of when embarking on a transition from a singer to community board—it is important to honor and thank those singers and other volunteers who have played a significant role in building your chorus. According to Dianne Peterson, “Those wonderful volunteers who did so much for your chorus in the early days—you can’t thank them enough!”

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