I have had a couple of pop riffs going through my head thinking about this post: Salt-N-Peppa, “Let’s talk about Boards, baby”; the Beastie Boys “Boards, to do the dishes, Boards to clean up my room”; and even Billie Holiday “I’ll be seeing you, at the quarterly board meeting.” Ok, that was apropos of nothing. In all seriousness, Boards are ubiquitous throughout all sorts of historical and archaeological organizations, and really drive the direction of many organizations to an extent that even employees don’t always realize. So yes, let us discuss Boards, cherished other person, and how they are one of the key ingredients in the sausage making.
First, there are many types of boards, which can be split into two groups- Boards of Directors, and Boards of Advisers (for the purposes of this post I will be discussing “commissions” which are just another name for boards in some cases). The name of the board really tells you it’s role- Board of Advisers do just that, they advise leadership of an organization on specific, narrowly defined activities. A Board of Directors, on the other hand, is more directly involved in the financial and other decisions of an organization. A commission is like a Board of Directors, but usually for a very specific purpose.
Boards can seem like people in a dark and smoky room making ambiguous decisions. They don’t always have the visibility of the appointed head of an agency, or the on-the-ground staff who dutifully fights the good fight. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boards lack transparency, they often just operate in a different bubble than the rest of us. If you look at the Venn Diagrams, there is more overlap than you might think.
As I stated, probably almost every organization you touch as an archaeologist or historic preservationist has a board- CRM companies, state agencies, universities, non-profits. Boards are written into the by-laws, so there are specific rules that govern them and define the extent and limits of their power. I am currently on three different boards, a state agency (NOT for the state agency where I am employed. That is never allowed); a commission for the town in which I live; and a non-profit. By the way, these are all volunteer positions. The getting-paid-to-be-on-boards thing is a whole ‘nother world.
Since 2015 I have sat on the Colorado Historical Records Advisory Board (CHRAB), which is a Board of Advisers to the Colorado State Archives that focuses on technical outreach and grant opportunities for repositories around the state. Members of the Board are gubernatorially appointed, as all members to state boards are here in Colorado (this may differ from state to state, so check with your local state regs). The State’s criteria for board member selection is pretty inclusive- usually some knowledge or expertise in the area in question, and they strive to make sure that the boards are diverse and equal, so not only ethnically and by gender, but in Colorado geographic diversity, so people representing different areas of the state, is very important. This is a pretty fun board. It’s mostly librarians and archivists, with me sticking out a bit like a sore thumb, but I have really learned a lot about the challenges of archival record keeping, as well as best practices and emerging technologies.
I am newly appointed to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) of the city I live in. In this case the elected town board chose members of the community who applied, and we consider proposals for historic tax credit projects, projects within or on historically designated properties and districts, and can serve as an advisory committee to city staff when they consider ordinances for historic properties. It’s especially interesting, because in many ways it is implementing on the ground the policy I am responsible for shaping at the SHPO office. For me, it is a great way to use my knowledge and skill set to assist my community, which is the whole point of boards and commissions at the local level.
I am also newly appointed to the Board of Directors for a non-profit, HistoriCorps, a wonderful organization that leverages volunteer labor to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings and structures. This board will make more direct decisions about the priorities of the organization, and how it will get there, both operationally and financially. It’s a little more daunting, because the stakes are pretty high for the health of the organization, and the employees who work there. But you can also have a massive impact on an organization and on the causes or disciplines your find important.
On a personal level, board work can be really rewarding, and it’s a great way to increase your professional network. For both CHRAB and the HPC, I applied for the board via an on-line application, and then for HPC I underwent a 5-minute interview. Literally. They timed it- best interview I have ever had. The Board of Directors for HistoriCorps was a little different, and came down to already established networks, a letter of interest with a CV, and a more extensive conversation that was not only about my level of appropriateness for the organization, but was an opportunity for me to learn more about the orgs culture and gauge whether I was still interested.
My involvement with these three boards, as well as working under a Board of Directors at History Colorado, has taught me quite a lot about how they operate and what they mean to an organization. For instance, it can feel like the board and staff operate in two different bubbles, and never the ‘twain shall meet. However, boards make decisions that effect staff all the time. As staff, taking every opportunity to properly educate your board on what you do and why you do it is always a good idea. Don’t let others interpret what you do for them.
And finally, get involved with a board. If there is a board with your organization, understand it’s function and try to attend meetings, get to know who the members are. Become a board member yourself. Look at your local town or even state boards and commissions, and apply. It may take a couple of tries. Let people in your and other organizations know that you are interested in volunteering. It’s a great way to make sure you are part of the sausage making.