Trustee Participation in the Annual GIA Conference

Ellen Michelson and Teresa Bonner, Aroha Philanthropies

The annual GIA conference brings us, in our respective roles as foundation founder-trustee and staff, inspiration for the work of the year ahead, highlights new developments and trends in the arts and funding, challenges conventional thinking, and provides opportunities to exchange ideas with our peers. It is a true highlight of the year for our work as arts funders, and we think it could be for other trustees as well.

At the 2014 GIA Conference in Houston in October, a small but enthusiastic group of trustees and staff participated in a panel discussion titled “Shared Learning: The Value of Trustees at the GIA Conference.” Moderated by Margaret Reiser, president of the John H. and Whilhelmina D. Harland Charitable Foundation, the panel, consisting of ourselves and Maureen Knighton and Jane Saks, staff and trustee, respectively, of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, explored opportunities to involve more trustees in the annual conference. Participants in the discussion included small founder-led private foundations as well as trustees and staff of established foundations.

The group identified a number of benefits of conference participation and called for a more robust process to include trustees in future years. Participants shared these and other observations:

  • Joint attendance at the conference gives arts program staff and trustees a shared multiday experience, something that might not be otherwise available to many foundations.
  • The conference showcases innovative, leading-edge artists from a wide array of arts disciplines, locales, and ethnic communities — artists whose work trustees may not know.
  • Trustees have a chance to develop relationships with trustees of other arts funders who might be helpful in facing future challenges or new directions.
  • Many sessions and preconferences go into issues that staff face in great depth, giving trustees a much better understanding of the complexity of issues faced by program staff.
  • Trustees can hear and participate firsthand in discussions about issues that may not be addressed at their own board meetings, such as the balance (or imbalance) of power among funders and grantees.
  • Because GIA conferences often highlight important new research and policy reports on current issues, such as racial and cultural equity, trustees can participate in robust conversations about them and develop a stronger understanding of the issues presented than they would by simply reading a press release or report.

We noted that the 2014 conference included a full-day preconference on the unique practice of arts grantmaking. This excellent session provided tremendous depth on several topics. Speakers addressed the important topic of how to turn vision into reality, which is vitally important to both board and staff. A second section of the preconference addressed how funders can help determine and ensure financial stability of their grantees, and strengthened participants’ understanding of nonprofit financial statements and principles of financial health. Discussion of crucial racial and cultural equity issues as well as learning about evaluation rounded out an information-packed day. We found the preconference to be an especially valuable resource to help trustees understand the implications and impact of their foundation’s work and the wide range of complex issues faced by staff behind the public face of board meetings.

Panel participants recommended against creating a separate track for trustees at future conferences for several reasons. First, there is significant value in trustees and staff attending sessions together, learning together, and having follow-up conversations about what they heard and saw. Second, a separate track would remove trustees from discussions that might be of interest to them as part of the larger group. Third, a separate track could create tension for grantmaking staff, as they would not be included in sessions that their own trustees attended.

The group also recommended creating a networking event for trustees early in the conference, which would allow them to recognize other trustees in attendance and follow up with them during the conference; issuing a special invitation or other outreach to trustees, especially those near the conference city; drafting a sample email that staff could send to their own foundation’s trustees; and providing more intentional inclusion of trustees in conference materials.