The Board Always Wins

Blogs and traditional local media in Chicago alike have been humming recently with news about the exit of artistic director Marguerite Horberg from the Hothouse, a performance venue she’d programmed for many years.  The Nonprofiteer has no inside information about the struggle between Hothouse’s Board of Directors and Ms. Horberg; she simply points to the public reports on the battle and draws the following conclusion:

The Board always wins.

It doesn’t matter how seminal you’ve been to an organization, how visionary, how essential: nonprofit organizations belong to their Boards of Directors, who are the people whose asses are on the line if the institution faces any liabilities such as, oh, the need to pay staff and conduct programming.  Ordinarily we’re beating the drum to get Board members to assume their governance responsibilities; but when Board members of arts organizations do just that in the form of deciding a senior staff person isn’t doing the job, we’re suddenly all terribly upset.  We complain that the Board has merely "corporate" interests at heart and that art has surrendered to commerce.

But here’s the dirty little secret of nonprofit arts groups: art surrendered to commerce the moment it secured the public subsidy represented by tax exempt status.  If the most important thing to the artist is control over the work and its proceeds, s/he’ll remain a sole proprietor.  The minute you ask someone else to pay the bills, you are ceding control.

The Nonprofiteer learned this the hard way early in her consulting practice, when she automatically assumed that a friend’s arts organization should become a nonprofit because, well, arts organizations are always nonprofits, aren’t they?  She did all the paperwork to create the nonprofit before finally hearing what the friend had been saying all along: his goal was to do his own work and reap its financial rewards, and he was willing to take the associated risks alone rather than share those risks–and therefore control over the work and the rewards–with a Board.  Red-faced, she helped disentangle him from his unwanted nonprofit fetters, and swore ever after to make sure she knew what the client was trying to accomplish before setting out to accomplish it for him.

Doubtless Ms. Horberg made important contributions to the development of Hothouse; but there’s no such thing as a contribution so vital that it justifies or authorizes overriding the will of one’s employers.  (This is one of the few lessons that can be transferred without modification from the for-profit world: satisfy the boss or you’re out.  And that holds for the entire for-profit world, including for-profit arts, where every day of the week high-profile directors get fired for "artistic differences" with the producers who sign the checks.)  Doubtless there are reasons both personal and artistic to regret Ms. Horberg’s departure–but from a pure management standpoint, the Board’s victory is just what should have happened, and any leader of an arts group who’s tempted to go head-to-head with his/her Board should bear this is mind before the battle in joined.


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5 Responses to “The Board Always Wins”

  1. Fred Friedman Says:

    Kelly ok Nonprofiteer

    On this I agree with you completely. Although, I suspect that most EDs do not believe it. The ED works for the board, the board does not work for the ED.


  2. Marguerite Horberg Says:

    This is a completely uninformed conclusion based on WHAT information and sources ?

  3. Marguerite Horberg Says:

    Perhaps this letter published in the Chicago reader will shed some insite for those who are interested in more fact than fiction. This was penned by an ex-board secretary and a major donor to the organziation. Perhaps the author of this thread should spend some time discussing her absurd conclusions with actual people who built the organization over the years rather than pontificate about something they are at best specualting about, that affect real peoples lives.

    HH board mem Questions About HotHouse
    Regarding the article “HotHouse Moves On” [The Meter, September 22], members of the HotHouse community still have many unanswered questions about the recent actions of the board of directors of CIPEX (the Center for International Performance and Exhibition). The disagreement over hiring a business manager was only part of the story. Here are a few questions I have had: What will be so different now that Marguerite Horberg is no longer there? What was she doing that was so wrong? What are the exact accusations against Marguerite concerning financial mismanagement that were hinted about in slanderous comments but never stated? Why was Marguerite suspended when she was attending a board-approved management-training seminar at Stanford University? What caused the board to get so angry that they went from wanting her to resign from the board to dismissal from the organization without pay? What made them think it was ethical to get staff members involved in the dispute and personally take sides? Why did they shut out board members and ask them to resign when they disagreed with them? And now how are they going to move on?

    HotHouse didn’t need rescuing. Many ex-board members and community leaders who tried to reason with the current board to respond to the community were treated dismissively and rudely. Unfortunately, what has happened at HotHouse is not unusual. All boards are responsible for financial security. But when they get rid of the heart and soul of the organization, i.e., the decisions on which performers to bring to the stage, financial rather than artistic concerns may become the priority. They say HotHouse will not change, but if that’s so, why get rid of the founder and executive director?

    Marguerite Horberg is a unique individual with experience, know-how, and creativity that can’t be duplicated. She, along with a large community of volunteers, built a great organization with an unprecedented commitment to the community, especially the many communitybased organizations that held their annual fund-raisers and special events there. Her expertise and interest in world music and jazz helped bring unbelievable talent to Chicago, many performing for the first time in the United States. Although she has already received many accolades and awards from the community, she needs to leave with more respect and gratitude for the house that she built.

  4. Marguerite Horberg Says:

    By the way, In the original article it states that I was the artistic director. In fact, I am the founder and was Executive Director and served for over 20 years to build HotHouse.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    My apologies for mis-reporting Ms. Horberg’s title. Likewise, if she understood my commentary to mean I was indifferent to her contributions to the organization she founded, or that I didn’t understand the personal pain attendant on her dismissal, I regret that. But I stand by my view that the Hothouse Board of Directors did its job. No “slander” or accusations of mismanagement are required for a Board of Directors to change the direction of the institution it governs by changing its leadership. Hiring someone to execute the decision to change–hiring, in fact, an Executive Director–is the primary task of the Board, and provided no statutes were violated it is a task the Board gets to discharge exactly as it sees fit. For, as it is written, s/he who has the gold makes the rules.

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