Updated: Jan 20
by Lisa Mackay In its first 25 years, Dancers’ Studio West (DSW) served primarily as a dance presenter for Calgary audiences, but as the dance community evolved, so did the organization. In 2018, DSW officially changed its mandate and became a service organization to better reflect its role in the community. Since then, DSW has navigated a global pandemic, steered its community through a shifting artistic and social landscape, changed artistic directors, and added five new board members. All these changes highlighted DSW’s organizational challenges and the strategic plan they had in place was rendered unusable. The dance community did not understand DSW’s new scope and purpose and changes in leadership made it difficult for the organization to effectively articulate and implement the mandate. Staff changes made it difficult to maintain momentum and continuity, and operational ambiguity regarding the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff created a lack of focus. Rufi Oswaldo, who joined DSW as Artistic Director in 2020, applied for a Rozsa Foundation Aspiration Grant to undertake an organizational governance review. Aspiration Grants support a range of key administrative and management processes, including business model examinations, business continuity plans, equity & anti-racism training and implementation, governance reviews, and more. Oswaldo spoke with the Rozsa Foundation’s Executive Director Simon Mallett prior to submitting the grant to ensure strong alignment between DSW's needs and the intention of the granting program and to fine-tune the application. After approval DSW engaged an external consultant, Mary Blais, to work with its board and staff in defining who they are and how they govern themselves. Through a series of carefully facilitated workshops, and collective and individual interviews with various stakeholders, Mary Blais helped provide a framework for the board and staff to work together efficiently, creatively, and joyfully - to the benefit of the artists and audiences they serve. Working with Mary Blais, DSW developed a new governance model that aligns with the aspirations of the organization. Their new governance model aligns with the strengths of the types of board members they tend to attract (arts educators, artists, etc.), as well as the company’s desire to respond dynamically to the evolving needs of the dance community. Consequently, the Board has adopted a governing style less preoccupied with bureaucratic and corporate ideals and focuses more on collaborative discussions that lead to action. They have shifted away from a vertical hierarchical board model to a horizontal democratic model, which means that instead of having committees accountable to the executive committee, they have working groups that are accountable to each other. “So far,” says Oswaldo, “this structure has really worked for us, improving dialogue, productivity, and trust. Although we anticipate a few formal changes to our policies, procedurally, we feel a sense of momentum between board and staff, thought, and action.” Oswaldo is enormously pleased by the progress made. “The care that went into the workshops, the personal commitment of our Board members and staff to participate fully (two of our Board members gave birth during our review and still participated), and the positive feedback from community members has been supremely encouraging,” he writes. DSW also experienced a synergy between the Aspiration Grant and other Rozsa Foundation offerings. Oswaldo participated in the 2021-2022 RAMP program and his Capstone Project entitled, ‘Howdy Partner! Strengthening DSW’s Organizational Relationships,’ focused on the way DSW relates to other arts organizations and the dance community at large. His project tied in seamlessly with the governance review and fortified the foundation upon which strategic planning and community outreach have been and will be conducted in the future. In all, DSW completed a full governance review, found clarity around roles and responsibilities for both staff and board, established accompanying systems of accountability, came to consensus on the organization’s direction in a way that is actionable by the Artistic Director, and created a clear pathway to the next phases of work for governance and organizational planning. Beginning this fall, they will embark on the final stage of their review and analysis by engaging directly with the Alberta dance community. Oswaldo is highly optimistic about this final step. “As the dust settles from this period of transition,” he wrote, “we are confident that this phase and subsequent phases of our organizational review will lay the foundation for us to render service that is both dynamic and stable in the long-term.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT!
What are your thoughts after reading about DSW's experience?
Do you have any questions for Rufi or the Rozsa Foundation?
Did this article spark any ideas for you about governance or community building?
In what ways can you identify with the challenges that DSW was facing?
In what ways is your organization having a different experience entirely?