Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review - Guidelines: Roles and Responsibilities of Museum Boards of Trustees

If you hadn't figured it out yet, I've been going back to basics for my recent book reviews. We saw a real need for this in last year's museum evaluations, so sharing insights from our reference library is an easy way to address the issue.

So today's resource is another look at the foundations of museum work - governance. In 2005 the Canadian Museums Association partnered with the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization on a project sponsored by the Department of Canadian Heritage. They created a simple outline that anyone can follow, with the goal of making sure board members and staff "have a strong, common understanding of the roles and responsibilities of museum trustees." One of the reasons behind the resource is the increased public expectations of transparency and accountability. I think we'll all agree that without a clear understanding of your job as a board member, accountability could be a little elusive at times.

There are 4 main sections to this booklet: Public Trust, Responsibilities of the Board, Board Self-Governance, and Board Conduct. And there is also the standard introduction, additional resources, and a review of the two common board types.

I think it is important that the role of public trust is highlighted in its own little section, and that it is the first section. The authors remind us that the board's public accountability isn't just the right thing to do, but that by law, boards are publicly accountable for the museum's resources, activities, care of the collection, adherence to professional standards, and for ensuring public access.

Section 2 is all about the responsibilities of the board, and is broken down into four basic pieces - purpose, continuity, progress and identity. Very direct statements are made about what should and should not be done in each area. Some of my favourite tidbits are:
- the board should regular review the by-laws and constitution to make sure they are relevant to the museum's evolving role in society (a subtle reminder that the museum should always be growing and changing)
- former staff shouldn't be on the board for at least a few years after they leave the museum's employ, and board members should not be hired as staff
- the board develops and implements framework, operational, and advocacy policies, and monitors progress
- the board has established a long-range plan with clear objectives and outcomes, ensures that resources are available to achieve these goals, and monitors progress (I'm starting to sense a recurring theme)
- the board engages in fundraising activities. Period.
- the board must serve as a link between the community and the museum, bring community concerns and ideas to the museum and be an ambassador for the museum
- the board should be involved in discussions and activities with the broader heritage community (ie don't be insular)

Part 3 has the scary title of "Self-Governance". Cue the menacing movie music. Time and again we hear from museums that struggle in this area, especially in terms of assessing progress. If you went through the Museum Evaluation Program process last year, or are working through it this year, this stuff will sound very familiar. Recommendations include having clear bylaws, requiring quorum for meetings and decision-making, the chair playing a lead role, having job descriptions for board members, and having terms of reference for committees. One of my favourite parts of this section is on board recruitment, because succession planning is a real struggle for museums. The guidelines recommend an annual recruitment process and developing a board that is an accurate reflection of the community. The basic principles are of course to be organized, to provide good orientation information and materials to new board members, to encourage their professional development, and finally, to assess the board's work and make sure it is operating as efficiently as possible. No this is not being overly demanding of volunteers. This is good governance.

Part 4 is all about board conduct. From a discussion about meeting attendance and associated policies (ie how do you deal with someone who never comes to meetings?), to conflict of interests and adoption of a code of ethics, this section goes more in-depth about policies and procedures that every board should have in place. The discussion on liability in this section is especially helpful, as it includes a quick list of things that board members can do to minimize liability risks. The second half of this section is more about relationships. In addition to the reminders to be collegial and respect confidentiality, there are outlines for board-director relations, and board-staff relations. Outlining exactly what expectations are for board members and staff, especially in their interactions, can help you avoid a lot of trouble if personalities start to clash. The authors have provided a handy bullet list of basic expectations for both parties for quick reference.

If you are interested in reading this, or want to circulate it to your board, it is available for free online.