Designing and electing your board of directors

Why you need a board of directors

Your orchestra needs an administrative leadership to take care of things like communicating logistics to the musicians, recruiting musicians, acquiring and copying music, publicizing concerts, and designing programs. These things shouldn't be the responsibility of your conductor, and they shouldn't be the responsibility of just one person. Administering an orchestra is too big a task for one person to do alone. Also, you want the orchestra to be able to continue functioning if something happens to you, so you need to spread the responsibility and knowledge among a team of key people.

When I say "board of directors", I'm not talking about a traditional nonprofit board made of wealthy or powerful community members who primarily do fundraising and hire the organization's director. Rather, I'm talking about a core group of people who will take care of the day-to-day administrative tasks for your orchestra. Perhaps one day you might want an advisory board made up of local professionals who offer their services to you or who attend fundraisers and galas, but at this point, what you really need is leadership from among your musicians to take direct control of your orchestra's functioning.

Another reason you need a board of directors is for your official business. You need one in order to open a bank account and apply for official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

How to start building your orchestra's administrative leadership

Before the RCO even began rehearsals, I started trying to recruit people to help me administer the orchestra. My musician sign-up form had a checkbox for "I want to be an organizer", and a lot of people checked it. Not all of them ended up actually volunteering for anything tangible, but after two organizational meetings and plenty of phone calls and e-mails, I got people to commit to volunteering for various tasks that had to be done for the first concert (especially tasks I didn't really want to do myself). I found a personnel manager early on to help me assemble musicians and keep a roster. A pair of librarians to acquire and copy music was next. I also got a volunteer to design and print posters and programs. I worked out the scheduling and kept everybody else on track.

As we progressed, we got a better sense of what needed to be done, and people figured out how to do it. The necessary leadership roles solidified. Just before our first concert, we held formal board elections during a rehearsal, with the positions effective for the remainder of our first concert season. We needed a formally-elected board in order to get a bank account and apply for our 501(c)(3) status and to adopt our bylaws, so we wanted to do this early on.

These first elections weren't exactly competitive. Everyone who had been doing the jobs already ran unchallenged and was elected unanimously. I also had to coax a few favored victims into running for some positions that no one volunteered for at all. It's hard to find volunteers for this kind of thing. In other words, keep it democratic, but feel free to handpick people to run if they aren't volunteering themselves. Just make sure you pick someone who knows how to do the job or who is willing and able and unafraid to figure it out if they don't. It can be very difficult to know who in your fledgling organization has what skills, if you don't know the members, and it takes time to establish trust with your fellow leaders that they will follow through with their commitments and do a good job. It helps if you can provide well-defined tasks and definite deadlines, and you have to remember that everyone's a volunteer and doing this in their free time. It takes time and patience and testing.

How to structure your board

Your board will likely need a minimum of four officers: president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer. These are the standard positions that the IRS and banks expect to see. You might want to include more officers than that and/or member-at large-positions as well. You will need to describe your board's structure and positions and election procedures in your bylaws.

I purposefully decided to keep my orchestra's board small and to give each member a specific title. We have seven officers and no members-at-large. I did this for several reasons. First, I decided to keep the board small because it is difficult to find volunteers who are willing to do administrative work. It would be hard to fill more positions. Second, I wanted every office to have specific, assigned duties to fill a well-defined need in the orchestra's administration. In my own experience, and from what others have told me, sometimes members-at-large don't know what to do to help, and it is possible to end up with a lot of dead weight on the board that doesn't really serve much purpose. It's better to have a small, full board with people who are committed to actually doing work for the organization instead of a large group of stragglers who don't show up to meetings and never get anything done.

In addition to president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, I decided that we needed a publicity director and that the personnel manager and librarian should be members of the board. The personnel manager and librarian are traditionally appointed staff rather than board members, but it seemed to me that in a group like ours, these two positions play a pretty key role in the group's functioning and ought to be part of the decision-making. At the very least, it makes them show up to board meetings so I can keep track of what they're doing and ask them questions.

When writing the board section of our bylaws, we decided to state that at least 50% of the board must be made up of orchestra members. While we welcome input from interested community members and the skills and connections they can provide, we really want the orchestra membership to be directly in charge of the orchestra's direction and policies. Although we certainly want to make great music that our audience enjoys, we are a community orchestra whose main purpose is really to provide a playing outlet for our musicians, so we felt that it is our musicians who should be in charge.

You can see the details of the RCO's board structure and officer descriptions in Articles V and VII of the bylaws. We might have to change these or expand the board as the organization evolves, but so far this arrangement is working well for us.

Getting rid of board members

Volunteer board members usually have the best of intentions, but unfortunately, they may not always have the time or desire or skills to do the job they signed up for or got elected for. I recommend you put an escape clause of some sort in your bylaws to allow you to get rid of ineffective (or destructive!) board members. Actually, ineffective and destructive can be the same thing if, for example, your treasurer neglects to file your annual IRS and state paperwork and you lose your non-profit status. Your board should be able to vote to remove a board member who fails to perform the duties of their office or who otherwise causes harm to the organization.

Also, board members should feel free to resign their positions at any time if they themselves realize that they can't or don't want to do the job. In that situation, it's best for them and for the organization if they resign responsibly. Add a board member resignation clause to your bylaws.