Q&A with an Arts Board Member | Michael Sirmai
In a new series, we talk to individuals who sit on the Boards of arts organisations to highlight their approaches to fundraising.
Michael is Chair of Milk Crate Theatre which uses the performing arts to change the story of homelessness. He is also currently the Regional General Manager of Lower North Shore & Northern Beaches in Westpac’s Consumer Bank and is Chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Young Ambassadors Committee.
As chair, how have you and the board driven Milk Crate Theatre’s fundraising culture?
Milk Crate Theatre currently relies on fundraising, rather than earned income, for the bulk of its revenue.
Fundraising must, therefore, be a key preoccupation of the board and management.
We ensure that every member of the Milk Crate family has clarity about our purpose and social impact and that they have context about our operating environment and financial needs.
We do this by linking everything back to our purpose, and by considering our impact in everything we do.
We find that once this clarity and context is established, everyone’s empowered (and we encourage them) to ‘make the ask’ for funding.
We openly discuss fundraising opportunities at each board meeting and celebrate key fundraising successes as a Company, including by linking the achievement back to our purpose and our impact, and how the funds will help us deliver.
Why is it important for board members to be aware of and involved in organisational fundraising?
For companies, like ours, strongly reliant on fundraising, this is important for strong corporate governance.
Depending on how the pendulum swings, fundraising can be a key risk or a key enabler to a growth strategy.
It’s also important for a company, and its board, to spend time thinking about its sources of funding. Milk Crate Theatre is generously supported by a number of governmental agencies, such as the Australia Council, Create NSW and various councils.
So it’s important for us as a board to keep up to date with the broader political environment, as well as any key changes or initiatives in the welfare or arts sectors.
We discuss fundraising reports at every board meeting. It’s a collaborative discussion with a sense of shared ownership between management and the board.
What special skills can board members apply to the fundraising capacity of an organisation?
In some not-for-profit sectors, like the traditional arts in the United States, directors are often sought for their capacity to give personally or to procure donations from others.
That has not been a focus for us, although each of our directors does typically contribute personally.
For a company like ours that straddles the arts and welfare sectors, it’s important that we take a broader view of the fundraising capacity of directors.
While we consider fundraising capability among the skills of our board, we think about fundraising holistically. Our board members contribute in a number of different ways: through deep knowledge of government or the homelessness sector; through experience in arts funding and philanthropy; through knowledge of corporate giving and foundations and other business connections.
Some of our directors are experts in marketing and entrepreneurship, which are also key to fundraising. Collectively, these skills mean that we can think about different sources of funding, and develop short and long term strategies.
It also means that members of the management team can draw on some of the experience from the board as necessary.
Often boards and staff are quite segregated. What’s the best way for staff to encourage board members to get involved in all-of-organisation fundraising?
Open and transparent communication is important. As this is a discussion at every board meeting, and successes are celebrated between board meetings, it remains front of mind.
Our management team also collaborate with individual directors to nurture key funding relationships.
Often this is as simple as sending thank you notes. Sometimes it’s through involvement through the entire fundraising process.
Directors also leverage their networks to create additional value for the Company through corporate gift matching, or donated goods or services.
At a very practical level, we encourage every member of the Milk Crate Theatre family, whether a member of staff, a director or member of our Artistic Advisory Council, a volunteer, a participant or a donor, to consider themselves as an ambassador.
How can board members leverage their influence to reinforce the all-of-organisation approach in their staff?
Again, if you focus on building the right culture and on establishing – and constantly reiterating – a very clear purpose and strategic plan, everyone is aligned and empowered. The rest falls into place.