Feb 8, 2024 Nurole logo
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How to sit on a third sector board | Steve Sacks

Steve has over 30 years of experience as a business executive and has worked extensively within the arts world. He was a partner at McKinsey and Company, based in both the US and the UK, the Chief Customer Officer of Burberry PLC, and most recently the Customer Director for Selfridges and Co. Steve is currently a trustee of the Royal Academy of Dance and of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He previously served as the Chairman of the English National Ballet School, as a trustee of the English National Ballet, as the Chairman of the Carducci Quartet trust, and as a trustee of College Summit, a US-based educational charity.

What boards, private and third sector, do you currently sit on, and which have you sat on in the past?

I am a trustee of the Royal Academy of Dance and of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I was previously the Chair of the English National Ballet School and a trustee of English National Ballet.
Why did you choose to join the board of a cultural organisation?

I believe the arts are hugely important to society and deserve to be supported. More selfishly, I love being involved in the arts and draw tremendous energy from working with the people in these organisations.
What are the key qualities for a good board member in the arts/charity sector?

I think the most important is probably to be passionate about the mission of the organisation. A close second is a willingness to roll up your sleeves and provide real help when you are needed - and to do so in a way that is positive and encouraging.  Third would be to bring outside expertise and provide challenge in a constructive way.
What is the most unexpected lesson you have learned from your experience on third sector boards that you have then used for your NED/similar positions?

Quite a lot about leadership actually and about how to balance commercial realities with a fundamentally non-commercial organisational culture and mission.
What is the biggest challenge your arts/culture/charitable organisations are facing right now?

It is pretty tough in the arts right now in the UK. It’s a world in which audiences have not fully returned post-Covid, where the next generation of donors have different priorities, where government funding has fallen in real terms, where cost inflation is high - and where staff are tired and overstretched. It’s a bit of a perfect storm. Having said that, there are a number of organisations doing incredibly creative and transformative things which is exciting for the future.
When have you gotten it wrong, and what did you learn?

One of the things I learned was the importance of pushing for change quickly enough. In one particular situation, things were going ‘fine’ - it was certainly not a crisis - and we didn’t move aggressively enough to prepare ourselves for the future. We really missed a trick by not making change when we could do so easily. It was just too easy to put off difficult decisions and not take risks when we should have!
What is your advice to someone joining their first board in any sector?

My advice is to come to the role with a sense of humility. These organisations are very different to the corporate world. What motivates the people is different, the resources at their disposal are different (generally far less), and they are constantly balancing the creative and artistic with the commercial. I think one can have tremendous impact bringing skills from outside this sector - it’s just a question of how one does it.

What insight has your role at Advisory Board for the Arts given you that you apply across your board roles, and vice versa?

The idea behind the Advisory Board for the Arts is that arts organisations around the world face many similar issues - whether they are ballet companies, orchestras, opera houses, museums, festivals or venues. I have been lucky enough to work with some great ones across Europe and the topics they are grappling with - finding younger and more diverse audiences, finding new donors, attracting and retaining staff, engaging corporates and governments, trying to become more sustainable etc. - are very relevant to the boards I am involved with. In the other direction, my boards roles have given me a much deeper understanding of the culture of arts organisations and the issues and trade-offs that arts executives are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

How do you approach and frame the evolution of your skills and career as a board member? What do ‘next steps’ look like for you?

When time permits, I would like to chair another arts board again. Plus, I would love to work with a museum - it’s a sector of great interest and passion for me!

How do you measure your own success as a board member?

Am I making a positive and meaningful impact? Am I enjoying myself and learning?

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