series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for my first couple years as nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary. It took an ambitious expansion project--Abbott Square--for me to learn how a great board makes the impossible possible.
I came to the MAH at a time of transition and turnaround six years ago. The board that hired me included many dedicated, exhausted people who were ready to move on. We expanded the board, bringing new energy and diverse thinking into the room.
I liked my board. I admired them. But I still didn’t know what the board was for. I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes. But I also saw their role as responsive to my actions as the executive director. I didn’t want them getting too involved in our programmatic changes. I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.
All that changed when we started the Abbott Square project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn't need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.
And so I turned to my board. There was the farmer who built the business plan with me. The retired judge who guided us through complicated lease negotiations for the market. The designer and the city councilman who saw the full creative potential of the site. The fundraisers who honed our campaign structure and outreach plan.
Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way.
The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. When I asked them if I should be spending half my time on this expansion, they said yes. When I asked them if we could raise $5,000,000, they said yes. When I asked them if it was worth the pain, they said yes.
If they hadn’t been there to say yes, I would have said no at some point. I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points. We might not have completed the project at all.
This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.
If you want to reach beyond your limits to achieve your mission, you need your board. They are the people who will push you over the edge, pull you up when you stumble, and make the organization soar. Sure, our organization could manage without a board of trustees. But we can only fly because of them.
If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.