I was a board member for the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes for two years until February this year. In the same way as missing out on the induction training to be an Airtours entertainer in the mid nineties left me in bafflement about the true importance of the Macarena and the rules of organising darts tournaments in an all inclusive hotel in Tunisia, I had just missed out on some governance training the Apples and Snakes board had all been sent on and so had to pick up the role of a charity trustee as I went along.
For the first few meetings I thought that it was to combat wrist gnawing boredom whilst piles of mostly financial documents were pored over and fellow board members interjected with gentle questions like: “In Quarter 2, why is there an amber light on education bookings through the website?” and Robert, the unflappable and detail-filled general manager answered at length. It was clear that the board was supposed to be boring because Geraldine Collinge, the Director, was exciting and creative and filled with inspiration and ideas for spoken word in the UK. We, accountants, lecturers, DCMS and British Council employees London Council managers and poets were there to ask gentle questions and look sensible but not really to get involved, like benign peers scrutinising bills. It could not be said that we were “running” the organisation, though Julia Mlambo, the organised, strategic thinking, sensible Chair had regular meetings with Geraldine and an excellent grasp of the overview of Apples and Snakes vision.
Then, to my surprise, after Geraldine moved on and there were major Arts Council grants to bid for and funding to raise in an unfavourable climate, the board did suddenly turn into a body that Did Actual Things. There was a day of brainstorming towards a new set of mission statements, a recruitment committee appointed a new director and the gentle questioning became strong steering to avoid unnecessary risk, look for new opportunities and make a strong case to the Arts Council for being well governed and stable in this time of transition. I realised that, as one of only two board members based outside London and one of only two board members involved full time in performance poetry, I could be a voice for risks and opportunities connected to these things, as well as for poets and people outside London. All of the board members began to say more in meetings.
One board member began to sound a more urgent drum for more energy being given to fundraising, I started sitting on a hobby horse about retaining sector specific expertise within the organisation. Both of us looking out for risks as we perceived them. Julia, the Chair, steered a course between staff concerns, the company’s mission and objectives and the need to hold a secure position and convey that to the Arts Council. It was clear that concern for due process and stability was paramount throughout.
The thing that has prompted my post is incredulity that the Poetry Society trustees acted as they have in two particular areas: i) spending £24k on legal fees, when there was not even an ongoing case & when charities can get free legal advice from ACAS. I can only imagine how Christopher Beard, board member & accountant or Robert, General Manager and careful man, would have reacted to this squandering of precious reserves. It just wouldn’t have happened. What next- hiring Edelman to clean up the PR mess? ii) Although as David Morley says, it seems that there is a story behind the story of personnel clashes, the board’s bright idea to get the Poetry Review editor to report directly to them, without informing the director, seems to have been a human resources plan with the car crash factor of David Cameron hiring Andy Coulson. A plan that has led to the continuing terrible management of the whole situation. There’s an exciting plan of work for the Poetry Society to get on with, and they can’t do it until the ship has been righted and trust restored.
So, now the board has resigned , effective from 12th September, what or who next in terms of trustees? I quite agree with Jane Holland’s statement that the board should have good administrators on it, not just good poets. I’m not saying the Apples and Snakes board was perfect. It was rather toothless at times. But it did have a good set of people who were experienced in the management of strategic organisations and who knew what funders and regulatory bodies would expect in the way of management. I was glad I ticked the poet/regions box but I think more board members should have too- even more the case for the Poetry Society which would surely have more weight with more members were it not perceived to be so Londoncentric. (For my last board meeting though I had an 8 hour round trip for a one hour meeting at which not even a cup of tea was available- it is lovely when national organisations recognise that some humans exist outside the city boundary and make arrangements accordingly). It was murmured that perhaps Apples and Snakes should be looking to make more contacts with “individuals of high net worth”, so perhaps some of those much touted arts philanthropists should be approached by Poetry Society members. It may be a little more difficult to find individuals who are both poets and individuals of High Net Worth…
In a questionnaire, Apples and Snakes staff said they did not know what the role of the board was and that they rarely saw us at events. It seems that even greater transparency for a board’s work may be useful, for the Poetry Society lot even more so after all this. Their trustees seem to be presiding over a PR disaster, the like of which probably isn’t covered in those governance classes. Still, it does seem that sending the new cohort on a few might not go amiss…
It shouldn’t be forgotten that trustees do valuable work for nothing and can bring immense value to an organisation, as surely, the Poetry Society board did until they got in over their heads in a tricky situation. It can’t have been pleasant. I was most often on the Apples and Snakes board a mixture of bored and frustrated and fascinated at the workings of a national literature organisation. I think I’ve generally been more useful in life being a poet or promoter or workshop facilitator- but then, at least I was also a voice for people who are a bit underrepresented in the running of such organisations. May many more of those come forward for the Poetry Society- it really, really needs them.