Alexis Foster left the building on a mission.
“There are definitely some things I’ve learned already,’’ she said Friday (Nov. 6) after attending the first of two, day-long sessions on board governance. “I’m going to grab my laptop to send off my board agenda and my minutes for my meeting.”
There are two reasons why this is significant: One, Foster came away with enough ideas and refreshed enthusiasm to fill a giant mining truck in the Alberta oil sands.
It may not sound like much, but communication — including informative, timely agendas — is as important to healthy board-and-management relations in the charitable not-for-profit sector as it is in the for-profit sector.
Two, this was the first time Capacity Canada has seen its Board Governance Boot Camp model — one of its foundational programs — exported outside Ontario. In this case, to Fort McMurray, Alta., where Foster is acting executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce.
Capacity Canada formed a partnership to hold the boot camp with FuseSocial, a local agency that, like Capacity, provides support services for charitable non-profits. The Suncor Energy Foundation is the sponsor, and the boot camp comes under the banner of Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, a branding of innovative change in the Fort McMurray’s non-profit sector.
Fort McMurray makes up the largest community in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. It’s a city serving the oil-sands resource industry. A question about population usually draws about ten different answers because of the flow of the workforce.
It’s around 76,000-80,000, and comes with some typical city social issues: homelessness, domestic violence, mental-health concerns, lost or unwanted pets.
Board members and top administrators from about 25 agencies have given up a chunk of their weekend to build stronger organizations by paying attention to the details of leadership. On Friday, they were reminded that funders, donors, politicians and the media are clamouring for greater degrees of accountability and transparency in the charitable sector.
“It used to be organizations were made up of good people doing good work, so trust us,’’ Don McCreesh, one of Canada’s leading governance experts, said at the start of the boot camp. “A lot of processes that should have been in place weren’t. As soon as there was trouble, things started to fall apart.”
“The bar is going up and up. You just don’t get a blank cheque anymore.”
McCreesh led the group on a long journey through the elements of good governance that give organizations backbone and confidence. Some tips:
• Don’t just plead for somebody to fill a board vacancy, recruit. And spend a lot of time at it to find an individual whose interests and passions align with those of the organization. Write up a job description outlining the expectations of the role;
• Cut some slack on debate at board meetings. Let vigorous, informative discussions — not a strict adherence to rules of order — shape the organization;
• Manage the executive director, don’t just plunk the person into a job. Provide support and guidance and don’t approach performance reviews — yup, those are needed, too — timidly.
Who makes a good board member? Somebody who isn’t afraid to ask questions. Board work is fulfilling, McCreesh said, but it isn’t a commitment to be taken lazily.
Board members can be personally liable for foul-ups if they haven’t thoroughly minded their fiduciary responsibilities — the duties of care, obedience . . .
“We have a chance in our sector to pull up our socks without having it done by regulators,” he said.
As hard as it might be, board reform is far more palatable than a do-nothing alternative. The failure to spot and assess risk, or deal with a small problem before it comes a larger one, can bring down an organization.
It can be awfully difficult, McCreesh said, to pull reputations — personal and organizational — out of the rubble.
Start small, he suggested. “See yourself on a journey. Pick the three or four five things you can fix and work on that.”