Aspen’s No Confidence Vote. Now What?

In the wake of Aspen Music Festival and School Corporation’s recent vote of no confidence, I’ve received a number of email queries asking about what votes of no confidence are, how they work, and why they are used. The prevailing question is “So what’s the purpose in taking a vote of no confidence if the results aren’t binding?”…

A vote of no confidence is most commonly used in the political arena as a means for demonstrating a lack of faith in the presiding leadership. In those instances, if the vote passes, it has actionable consequences. When applied to nonprofit governance, votes of no confidence rarely carry provisions for the board of directors to enact any specific action or process and this is the case as it applies to the Aspen.

Consequently, we arrive back at the original question: why bother? In the orchestra business, when conducted by the board, even symbolic votes of no confidence typically demonstrate a willingness on behalf of the institution’s stewards (the board) to consider a broader range of opinions as they apply to the organization’s leaders, which can include artistic executives, administrative executives, and executive board members.

If the vote passes with a mandate threshold, some sort of action is likely but it is rarely swift and can manifest itself in a variety of methods. For example, it is comparatively rare for a performing arts organization to openly fire an executive leader. The most common outcome is to allow the individual to resign on his or her own terms and issue a generic press release making it seem that the action is a result of natural turnover.

Although the executive leader in question certainly benefits from this arrangement as it protects his or her professional reputation, it typically has more to do with maintaining as much cohesion as possible behind the scene among board members and other institutional stakeholders. More often than not, an openly hostile termination is more a measure of insulating against gross mismanagement or even illegal behavior.

In these cases, an organization will actually strengthen its public image and confidence in stewardship by demonstrating that swift, decisive action against action they uncovered through their oversight procedures. Although unappealing, it demonstrates they are fulfilling their responsibilities to protect the public trust.

One unique aspect of votes of no confidence as they apply to nonprofit governance, is the lack of actionable results allows a wider variety of stakeholders to implement the process. For example, the board of directors can call a vote of no confidence and restrict the process to current board members or invite any outside parties they wish.

Likewise, individual stakeholder groups can conduct their own votes of no confidence. So volunteer organizations, musicians’ associations, etc. can initiate and conduct their own votes and present those results to the board. One recent example of this was at the Omaha Symphony where the musicians passed their own vote of no confidence in the now departing president CEO, Robert J. Hallam. Details were reported in the 4/23/2010 edition of the Omaha World-Herald in an article by John Pitcher.

So where does this leave Aspen? It’s hard to say, but it is worth reiterating what I wrote last week on the matter as it applies to protecting the overall mission of the institution:

From a stewardship perspective, the task at hand is to retain the highest possible state of board cohesion that simultaneously maintains levels of active participation and contributed revenue levels. If the board can accomplish this while simultaneously balancing artistic cohesion among a mandate level of institutional stakeholders, then the vote could serve as an enormously useful vehicle toward stabilizing the festival.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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