In September 2020, I was elected as the Chair of the Board of a local community health centre (CHC). I have served on the board of this organization for almost four years. Visually it’s a board that is diverse and reflects the community it serves. However, visual diversity is only a part of the story of this board.
As we come together and learn more about each other and our backgrounds, the depth and richness of our diversity is becoming even more apparent. Working with members of the board, organizational leadership, staff and community members, the opportunity to fully leverage our diverse perspectives is a personal and shared goal to be pursued with vigour and intentionality.
Now more than ever, the current climate demands a board profile with a range of competencies and diversity of perspectives. The best way to achieve diverse competencies and perspectives is to ensure homogeneity isn’t the blueprint for engaging people in the work of organizations. There is richness in diversity because it allows us to obtain a more complete picture of whatever confronts us, be they challenges or opportunities. The more comprehensive picture one has of a situation, the decisions made are more informed, thoughtful and considered.
Generally, board roles and responsibilities fall into the following four primary buckets:
1) Setting organizational direction
2) Providing operational oversight
3) Allocating and ensuring required resources are in place
4) Ensuring good governance & operations
The best ways for boards to ensure it is fulfilling its duties is to ensure appropriate organizational policies are in place, and that management practices and processes are consistently and fairly applied and implemented. A good way for boards to achieve this is by asking the right questions.
In recent months there has been no shortage of examples of boards falling short of the mark in terms of their responsibilities by their actions or inactions that fail to live up to the expressed mission and values of their organizations. There are also no shortage of stories and narratives about dysfunctional and weak operational leadership, where the ripple effects often feed the creation and growth of unhealthy, unsafe and toxic workplace environments. This dangerous toxic alchemy is not inherently associated with the non-profit space, but make no mistake, it is real and it is ever present.
We can anticipate that future narratives about the year 2020 will undoubtedly highlight two of the top stories of the year. First, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has infected millions of people across the globe and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the midst of a search for a vaccine to stop the spread of the virus and restore a sense of ‘normalcy’ to our lives. Second, the global Anti-Black Racism protests that erupted after George Floyd’s agonizing death at the hands of his encounter with Minneapolis police.
Both stories surfaced the depth and reach of centuries old systemic inequities and vulnerabilities that have been denied and/or ignored. The non-profit sector has grown exponentially over the decades to fill, as best it can, the resulting societal inequities and gaps. Given the types of programs and services provided by non-profits and charities, COVID-19 and the Anti-Black Racism protests have had significant impact on the sector.
Non-profits and charities have known for some time that meeting the challenges posed, both today and in the future, require organizations to:
- become or be more agile, adaptable, responsive and generative
- prioritize organizational sustainability, business continuity and risk management
- leverage technology in program and service delivery, capture and evaluate data and bridge accessibility and equity gaps
- commit to greater transparency and accountability
These two stories serve to reinforce to non-profit and charitable boards and operational leadership, must also be purposeful and intentional in focusing on racism, and specifically Anti-Black Racism, and creating equitable, safe and inclusive environments. Organizational leadership must do more than routinely espouse and recite organizational values. Those values must be enacted, demonstrated and reflected in the behaviours and approaches to the work; in the way decisions are made; in the way people are treated and how relationships are built.
Here are seven areas that both boards and operational leaders can demonstrate purposeful and intentional actions in key areas:
1) Move beyond values to embracing virtues
A statement of values is important. However, organizations must take the next step and turn those values into virtues. This requires intentional action. The best way to determine if organizational values have been translated to organizational virtues is to ask the question “are organizational behaviours, practices, processes and decisions reflective of its values?”
2) Understand how programs and services offered are delivering on expected results
Ensuring those closest to the organization – staff and key volunteers such as board members – are well versed and knowledgeable about the mission, programs and services offered. Of equal importance, is the need for these key stakeholders to know how effective the programs and services are in achieving the expected results. How should boards exercise oversight in this area? Boards must receive assessments and evaluations of programs and services.
3) Broaden and appreciate that diversity goes beyond perceived visual identifiers
Diverse perspectives facilitate agility, adaptability and innovation. Imagine if we approached non-diversity as an abnormal or perverted state. Doing so would render it unnecessary to create a business case for validating diversity. It is generally accepted that diversity within the gene pool of any species is important for its health and survival. Therefore, let’s simply accept that diversity matters.
Making sure your board is reflective of the community and people being served is important, but understanding that everyone’s uniqueness is based on their background and cumulative experiences is also critical.
4) Ingraining agility & adaptability into the operations
Issues facing organizational leadership are complex. A constantly changing and fluid external environment adds further complexity and ambiguity. Leadership must frequently measure, assess and evaluate progress on goals and objectives. In doing so they are better positioned to quickly determine what shifts, if any, are required to meet desired results.
5) Financial viability & sustainability
Financial viability and sustainability is about meeting the needs of the organization now without jeopardizing the future and developing an operational model that sustains the organization’s programs and services. Boards and organizational leadership must seek ways to balance both the needs of the present with the demands of the future.
6) Risk Management and organizational continuity
An organization’s ability to effectively manage its risks and plan ahead for unexpected occurrences that could disrupt its operations are key aspects of organizational health and strength. For example, a few recent studies have shown that organizations with good risk management strategies and business continuity plans have fared better during the COVID-19 crisis than those with little or no strategies and plans in place. As part of its due diligence, boards must insist that their organizations have solid risk management and business continuity plans in place.
7) Commitment to Learning, Transparency & Accountability
Well developed and honed leadership skills and competencies are required at all levels of the organization. To function effectively, it is important that a culture of continuous learning and improvement, transparency and mutual accountabilities are instilled across the entire organization. Regardless of function or position within the organization it is important to demonstrate that practices and processes are transparently and consistently implemented.
Relying on a process of ongoing reflection, my perspectives continue to evolve with my experiences. There is always more to contemplate, to learn and to put into practice. Are there other ways organizations can be purposeful and intentional with their actions and decisions?
Nicole Salmon is Founder & Principal of Boundless Philanthropy, where she provides transitional (interim) senior leadership support, fund development planning and board development services. An avid reader, gardener and sports enthusiast, she has a deep appreciation for service, building strong connections and deep personal relationships. She is co-editor of the book Collecting Courage: Joy, Pain, Freedom and Love due for release in November 2020 published by Gail K. Picco, an imprint of Civil Sector Press. Pre Order a copy today in print or on Kindle.