Apps, amalgamation and the difference between awesome leadership and awkward leadership: All were on the agenda Saturday (Nov.7) as FuseSocial and Capacity Canada wrapped up a two-day Board Governance Boot Camp in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
“I think as a next step for FuseSocial we need to engage more social-profit organizations around building their board-governance skills,’’ said Jeanette Bancarz, chair of the FuseSocial board. “We need to set the path for future learning.”
This was the first out-of-province experience for Capacity Canada’s boot camp model. It partnered with FuseSocial, a three-year-old organization that provides supportive services to Fort McMurray’s non-profit sector. The Suncor Energy Foundation sponsored the event as part of the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo initiative to build stronger, more-connected community groups in Fort McMurray.
In fact, lessons learned about resiliency in Fort McMurray, a city of 76,000 tied closely to the demand for oil out of the Alberta oil sands, might be applied in other communities where Suncor Energy is a major employer.
The organizations participating in the boot camp — about 25, providing services ranging from pet adoption to help for families in crisis — will reconvene late in the winter to report on a homework assignment: Apply what they found out over the two days to real governance challenges they face.
“We’re always doing new things, creating new committees, so having different ideas on how to tackle that effectively is really positive,” said Diane Shannon, executive director of the United Way of Fort McMurray. “Just knowing there is an appetite in our community to improve governance practices makes me happy I invested a part of my weekend.”
Saturday’s session drilled deeper into themes discussed Friday. Boards and administrations should work closely together, yet be aware of their separate roles. How well they do that comes down to tone and style.
Old-school governance with rigid boards and autocratic executive directors doesn’t cut it any more, said Fred Galloway, an expert in governance and organizational development. Governments are cutting funding, funders want hard results with plenty of transparency, and groups face ever-increasing demands to amalgamate if they can’t make a strong case for standing alone.
Modern governance, he said, “is about being dynamic and flexible, not being rule-driven.” This requires executive directors who coach rather than boss, encouraging the next generation of employees to step up and lead.
So, he said, don’t carelessly fill a vacancy at the top by rushing the recruitment process.
Boards should filter candidates for executive director through two interviews, Gallow said: One to look at skills and attributes; the other to determine whether a candidate’s style fits the culture of the organization. Failure to do the latter can knock an organization off its mission for months or years as the board focuses on crisis instead of strategy.
Boot-camp participants also examined amalgamation, one of biggest challenges in governance. They didn’t have far to go for an example.
FuseSocial formed out of three agencies. A panel of three people involved in the transformation — Bancarz (the FuseSocial chair), board member Kim Nordbye and Bonnah Carey, who’s helping to lead the organization on an interim basis — talked about the chemistry and electricity amalgamation creates.
Exciting, yes, but also hugely stressful as the parties involved seek to get it right and minimize disappointment.
“We put expectations on ourselves that maybe the community didn’t have,’’ Barcanz said.
The boot camp closed with two other significant events.
Capacity Canada used the boot-camp to unveil its board-governance training app, and invited participants to try it out for three months.
Mounted on a digital training platform developed by Axonify, a Waterloo-based e-learning company whose clients include Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, the app delivers an educational program on governance in short bursts of questions every day. Axonify pours a lot of research into how people learn, and retain what they’ve learned, into its products.
The app can be used on smartphones, tablets and desktop or laptop computers. Participants earn points as they answer questions and climb through different levels. They can compare their performance against others completing the same program.
“It’s short, it’s easy to play, but the content is hard,” Cathy Brothers, Capacity’s chief executive officer, told the boot camp. “We see this as staying on top of social innovation. This is how people learn these days.”
Capacity wants to develop other apps for non-profits, Brothers said. For organizations in remote areas where the cost of getting to, or bring in in, expertise is prohibitive, this is an affordable option.
The boot camp ended with a new assignment for Steve Farlow, Capacity’s board chair. He will work with FuseSocial as a mentor — a kind of board chair in residence.
Like the boot camp in Fort McMurray, the benefits are mutual, Farlow said.
“I learned a great deal speaking with about eight or nine real social-innovation leaders here,” he said. “These are people in their thirties or early forties who really impressed me with their engagement in the community . . .I’ve volunteered to participate in the (boot camp) follow-up sessions and to do some mentoring and coaching with FuseSocial.
“It’s going to be two-way learning. Capacity Canada is going to benefit from that involvement.”