NECCA: A former board member's perspective
At this point it seems it is simply those for or against the founders. If that were the full picture, there would be little reason for this written opinion. But it is more than that.
Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion are wonderfully accomplished, poised, talented, beautiful women. They are a credit to the community, indeed, to the state. They are rightfully admired for their talent, skills and teaching throughout the circus industry as we are seeing in the robust rallying to their defense. Many, including myself, have sent our daughters and sons to benefit from them as athletic and artistic role models. While both of these are significant, their industriousness has underscored the basis of their success. They are talented and they are worthy of praise and they conceived a remarkable opportunity for circus arts training.
A board's obligations are many and include long term direction, it was becoming apparent there was both need and opportunity to expand and deepen the artistic voice of the New England Center for Circus Arts to hear and include the circus industry beyond the founders, incorporate other idea-rich circus artists as well as NECCA's very fine cohort of coaches.
To this the board encountered a resistance to dialogue.
In fact, a contingency of coaches approached the board to address what they described as the "funnel" issue. A board committee spearheaded a team to field ideas and begin to identify what an enlarged leadership might look like. This effort, while entertained by the twins, when steps developed to implement, encountered a resistance to even commit to dialogue. With further effort, this resistance may have been overcome. I will state unequivocally, and contrary to what has been reported, the board was never interested in eliminating the input of the founders. Never.
Again, to understand and resolve, it's important to move beyond focus on the impressive talent and admiration of the founding twins and begin to deconstruct the actual issues at hand. Founders' syndrome — neither myth nor diagnosis — includes control issues and the inability to incorporate collaborative input with leadership. On any number of occasions the board initiated efforts and ideas with the founders to identify NECCA's path into its second decade. The organization had far outgrown the early days in the Cotton Mill in terms of administrative and financial structure and demonstrated clientele needs. Importantly, it had outgrown its founder-authored business plan. There was needed identification of opportunity in the circus industry, itself in flux. This task, long range thinking, is the very essence of a board's responsibility.
An intransigence (often marking founders' syndrome) included situations with decisions made in the aforementioned funnel to and from the twins. There was little organizational infrastructure to address meaningful strategic planning, no succession plan, and professional recruits found they were not able to contribute effectively. The structure of the NECCA Building Committee, a four-year long effort, provided a model of how things could work. Wider expertise than the early building design had incorporated, a design that would not have provided anything approaching the present building — this expertise was identified and vetted to incorporate. There were differences of opinion, many, of course, but the process by which they were eventually decided, proved successful.
Over the course of more than two years, the board painstakingly weighed both what to build and the decision to build. The timing decision was bold but well-vetted and the capital campaign's success underscored the great trust with which the community held the leadership of NECCA. Further bi-weekly meetings continued the due diligence for another two years. It is important to note one twin supported the building timing decision, the other voiced caution but did not voice objection.
While intransigence was a consistent presence, the board and the founders worked to overcome that challenge. Founders' syndrome is called a syndrome for a reason, it tends to take on a life of its own. Still, we all persisted. Yet at a certain point the board found itself confronted with issues larger than any we had so far to resolve. These have been reported and ask further resolving.
It was also reported the mission has been " saved." Mission statements are particularly vulnerable to selective reading or interpretation. The board had very carefully considered NECCA's statement, what it included and how to address short and long term growth. The NECCA mission statement includes all aspirations and gives latitude to all skill levels. Any board is obliged to determine what their mission means, it is obliged to review the statement, ensure effective planning, implement and monitor the plan's goals, monitor and strengthen programs and services, determine which plans, which services, are consistent with the organization's mission. Further, the board must ensure adequate financial resources, protect and provide proper financial oversight.
Finally, the board is ultimately responsible for adherence to ethical and legal standards.
While the founders were truly brilliant at conceiving the idea, managing it into maturity with full and strict attention to the above listed responsibilities demanded the input of a rigorous board. And rightfully so, this is the structure of a nonprofit. There were many, many needs confronting the organization, the needs of an organization in the vibrant stage of its youth but also at a critical juncture, an inflection point.
The last month (and more) has been laden with unhappiness and anxiety on all sides. Recent information and developments will ask much of the reconfigured leadership of this young organization. It is said nature also abhors stasis. The organization is growing and leadership must reckon with both short-term happiness and long term guidance
I am saddened by the quick verdicts of letters of complaint of an "elitist" board. This was a board that worked with diligence and integrity and I am honored to call the members colleagues. The NECCA board was and is comprised of the NECCA community and dedicated to this organization, the board worked to supply NECCA with both short and long term guidance. We all know that growth and change present challenges asking us to resolve to the best of our abilities. And none of us work flawlessly. But this difficult work is exactly what was and is underway. I simply ask the reader to consider this.
The resources Brattleboro has are remarkable for a town of its size, for its rural context. Resources, though, carry with them the need for assessment, management and guidance. The area is rich in the arts, in the appreciation of that which inspires and catalyzes us into deeper perceptions of our humanity. We explore our hearts, our souls and our minds with the arts. These resources, led by diligent community dedication, ask much of us. And they give us much more.
Kate Anderson was the president of the board of NECCA from January 2016 to May 2017. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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