Dear Prof. PANL,

Arthur, our board chair, donates regularly to our mid-sized arts organization and recently provided a generous gift in support of an animal-themed exhibition, and we were thrilled! However, Arthur is now trying to control all kinds of operational and creative decisions related to the exhibit and wants to include artwork from a personal rock collection. Help! Staff members are at their wits end with trying to please Arthur, and the exhibit project is in real jeopardy at this point. What’s the right thing to do here? The organization depends on Arthur’s donations, and I need to maintain a good relationship with the board chair.

—Can’t-say-no ED

Dear Can’t-say-no ED,

Of course, in an ideal world, you’d have in place an explicit gifting agreement that clearly delineates the parameters of a donation. But as you know, even with a ‘contract’ in place, it doesn’t mean that donors won’t try to exert control on what happens to their donations.

There are several layers to your Arthur problem. The Canada Revenue Agency is pretty clear: “When a donor receives an advantage in return for a donation, all or part of the donation may no longer qualify as a gift.” If Arthur uses the exhibit to feature a personal rock (!) collection, the donation might not qualify for a tax receipt. Arthur might not be aware of this.

But first things first: where are the other board members? The board chair should know that Arthur isn’t in charge of operational or creative decisions related to the exhibit. Perhaps it’s time to gently remind the board as a whole that your role as the Executive Director is to see to daily activities and event planning for the organization. Remember that while a board chair is crucial to how a board operates, the chair isn’t your boss. All board members are. Time to rally the board and have an open discussion at the board level on how the show’s integrity (as initially planned, focused on animals) has a purpose for your organization, and discuss the rules around donations. I hope that other board members will remember that boundaries are needed to avoid conflicts.

If I were you, I’d probably ask Arthur to sponsor a special exhibit with the rock collection — enabling him to provide some advice. Arthur probably wouldn’t be able to claim this specific donation on taxes. Still, this way, you can continue to foster a positive relationship in the future without burning any bridges. Even better, Arthur might realize less control is better with a tax receipt in pocket.


Prof. P.

Photo of rocks is courtesy of Ermelinda Martín and Unsplash.

Sign up for PANL Perspectives' free, monthly newsletter

Sunday, October 11, 2020 in
Share: Twitter, Facebook