Notes From The American Board Model – San Francisco Symphony

By Amanda Rigali on

Amanda Rigali photoI recently attended a thought-provoking event organised by the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), in association with Arts Fundraising & PhilanthropyABO logoThe ABO wanted to engage more with the Chairs of its orchestra members, and so had invited Brent Assink, Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony, and Sakurako Fisher, Symphony President, to come and speak to UK orchestra Chairs and Directors.

Brent and Sakurako spoke honestly about their work in San Francisco, to an audience who were simultaneously admiring of their achievements, and unenvious of their challenges.  There were clear differences between the UK and UK orchestral sector in terms of scale of operation, and cultural landscape.  Nonetheless, there were still a number of issues that they raised which had a strong resonance with the UK-based audience.

By way of context, the San Francisco Symphony has an annual turnover of $66 million.  A tiny proportion of this comes from statutory funding.  25% of annual income comes from their endowment, currently standing at $280 million.  The rest comes from earned income and further revenue fundraising. There are 107 orchestra members, and 125 staff, 85 Board members and 1,500 volunteers.

It is mainly Sakurako’s task to manage the 85 Board members.  This makes her role infinitely more complex, particularly as she is adamant that all Board members must contribute to the Symphony.  This is partly a financial contribution (they generally give a minimum of $15,000 a year each), but they are also expected to be subscribers, attend important events, and actively participate in Committee meetings.  Most of the Board’s work is delegated to Committees, and Sakurako herself attends the majority of Committee meetings.

Brent described the Board members as a group ‘who all touch the elephant, but none of them see its full scale’. Sakurako was clear that all Board members must understand the Symphony’s business model and Accounts, even putting on special Board meetings for Members to go through the Accounts in detail.  At this time of profound and fast change the governance must be constantly ahead of the curve, not in the vanguard.

Sakurako runs meetings on the principle that Boards are meant to be generative – Board members should be given questions to consider which no one yet knows the answer to.  When new Board members ask what their biggest mistake would be, both Sakurako and Brett say it is ‘to be quiet’.

The Board works alongside the 1,500 volunteers, who are very involved in fundraising.  This is a critical workforce, and so the Symphony is actively monitoring the demographics of San Francisco and responding to change.  Younger volunteers want to be given short-term tasks to do; older volunteers want more extended social engagement.  As a result of this, they are re-thinking their volunteering model.

It was really inspiring to see the skill and commitment with which Sakurako approached her work as President, and the strong working relationship between her and Brett.  There is much that we in the UK are glad to miss from the American Board model (after all, who really wants to manage 85 Board members?).  But we should take account of the high degree of organisation, expertise and strategic thought that they bring to their governance work, and the strong sense of engagement and responsibility that they engender in their Board members.  This will undoubtedly be crucial to their continuing success over the coming years.

What do you think? We’d love to know your thoughts about how we can learn from American Trustee models.

The ABO is running a new training course for musicians, The Musician as Fundraiser, in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy.  You can find out more information here.

Posted by Amanda Rigali

Amanda is Director of Strategic Development at Cause4, and Head of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme. As well as running the Programme, Amanda runs fundraising training sessions for cultural professionals across England and offers intensive strategy support to a range of charities.

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