On Boards

By Jini Stolk

Jini Stolk speaks at a podium at a Creative Champions Network event
Jini Stolk at a Creative Champions Network event

In December 2021, Jini Stolk, Creative Champions Lead, announced that she’s stepping down from the role. Her influence in developing Creative Champions Network and its success cannot be overstated, and she will definitely be missed. We’ve asked Jini to write a few words on her experiences on boards. Her passion for the work is evident; our hope is that what follows will inspire both existing board members and those looking to explore this important service.  

Jini’s reflections:

The simple response is that serving on boards has  been deeply satisfying, a (mostly) joyful counterpoint to my professional work as administrative director of an eclectic array of visual, publishing, theatre, dance and performing arts organizations.   I’ve served as a director on more than 15 boards: I’ve never not been on a board or two.

I learned from my board work how to be a far better manager, and from my management work how to be a much better board member.

I certainly didn’t start out as a “board expert” and in the early years I made mistakes on both sides of the board table. Like many young arts leaders I didn’t really understand what boards were for. What useful advice could these established, business-oriented, capitalist apparatchiks(!) give me? In reality it turned out that their concern, guidance, friendship, professional and life skills, value as a sounding board, and willingness to go to their friends and colleagues to raise interest and money, made all the difference in the world. 

I began to see what became blazingly obvious as the years passed: a strong board can make a good organization great, playing an essential role in its success. Understanding how and why that worked became an absorbing pursuit. Where art is always at the centre, who leads?; what are the different roles and shared responsibilities between board and staff?; how does collaboration between board and the artistic and managing leaders work?; how do you build essential mutual trust and respect?   

I’ve said it before: becoming a good board member requires a commitment to life-long learning, an open mind and curiosity about how things work when they work well. This is the reason that Claire Hopkinson and I created the Creative Champions Network 7 years ago – to support volunteer board members by bringing them together to share experiences and learn from leading experts about the art of good governance – creating a shared understanding that would benefit individual companies and the creative sector.

We expect a lot of our board members. Arts boards are entrusted with building financially sustainable organizations, helping to find solutions to complex problems, encouraging private philanthropy, communicating the joys and value of art, and advancing policies that allow the arts to flourish. 

Anyone who’s served on an arts board knows how satisfying and enriching it can be to devote yourself to the success and well-being of an organization whose work you deeply believe in. You receive an intimate view of the artists and creative practices behind the art; you work closely with devoted and skilled professionals; friends and family thank you for taking them on new and exciting artistic adventures; and you enjoy a small share of the opening night applause. 

You’re also required to hone your problem-solving, collaboration and organizational skills. Being on a  board is not easy, and no matter how experienced a person is, there are always new situations, new personalities, changing trends and the occasional crisis to confront. 

My deepest satisfactions in board work came from using my time, talents and life experiences to support and add value to organizations whose work excites me. Along the way I’ve developed my leadership chops and have learned as much as I’ve shared about the challenges of managing, producing, marketing, fundraising, and communications. I’ve expanded my skills in government relations, advocacy, policy, space needs, capital projects and capital fundraising; and have delved deeply into board engagement, networks, collaboration, team building, and community building. 

I’ve seen board work as both a responsibility and a privilege, and have found joy in public service and personal satisfaction in deep investment in artists’ and other non-profit leaders’ vision and creative process – as well as lifelong friendships, forged in fire, with board and staff colleagues.

Arts organizations and their boards, in Canada and elsewhere, are undoubtedly changing, in good and necessary ways: in their understanding of governance as a shared practice, in their relationships to the communities they serve, in the values they embrace and exemplify. 

And now boards have the responsibility to respond creatively and with courage to a global pandemic - embracing risk and modelling resilience – while responding openly and constructively to urgent social and political issues around sustainability, equity, race and reconciliation.

Ultimately, as an arts board member you’re participating in creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to be joyfully engaged with the arts; where a rich diversity of artists and cultural organizations are thriving; and where artists, arts workers and boards are mutually committed to enriching individuals and communities through the arts.

What could be better?