By Mardi Witzel
In my first blog One Woman’s Journey into Board Governance, I talked about the different paths to a board appointment, ranging from the coveted ‘shoulder tap’ to the less glamorous but broadly rewarding tack of ‘over-preparedness.’ Looking back and thinking about my first board appointment, it wasn’t something I went looking for, I sure hadn’t prepared for it and yet it wasn’t really a shoulder tap either.
It happened in 2001 and the position sort of fell into my lap – probably more a reflection of the maturity of the organization, than any magnetic draw I had. I had recently left a job I loved, to raise my kids on a full-time basis, and was looking for something to do in the community. My sister-in-law invited me to tour a local children’s treatment centre and I fell in love with the place right then, its cheerful, warm and industrious approach to serving special needs kids.
Shortly after that first tour, I was invited to join the KidsAbility Foundation board and accepted the position without knowing anything about governance. I have now been involved with KidsAbility Foundation for over twenty years, including two separate board stints totalling 14 years. I served for three years as Board Chair, sat on the committees for Finance & Audit, Investments and Governance, took a cross-appointment to the operating board of KidsAbility (formerly the Rotary Children’s Centre), and as past-Chair, chaired the Nominating Committee. I am a strong believer in the importance of board renewal and when my term was done, it was done, but I still support the organization in various more personal ways.
Over the years, the foundation, its board and I grew, both separately and together. Back in the early days the foundation board functioned more like a well-managed fundraising committee than a governor. There were Articles of Incorporation and by-laws, but most meetings were spent actively involved in the “doing” of fundraising plans and activities rather than their “oversight.” Much of board members’ time was spent identifying individual and corporate prospects from the community we served, who might be willing to support the great work and programs of ‘the Centre’.
In 2008 I took an eight year hiatus from board work to do graduate studies and shuttle my kids to an ever-proliferating suite of extracurriculars. I rejoined the organization in 2014 only to find a dramatically different board, with an intense focus on policy and governance. By this time there was a small but robust foundation office and the board had become more of an overseer. Over the years that followed, including under the Chairs immediately preceding and following me, the board underwent a lot of growth, leaning in on board development and establishment of a more sustainable balance between the activities that we felt it was important for us to do as board members in service of the organization’s fundraising goals, and our responsibilities as fiduciaries. We adopted a consent agenda, a skills matrix, increasingly thoughtful and systematic approaches to Executive Director review and compensation, board evaluation and with the Executive Director, strategic planning.
As I reflect on this long history with one not-for-profit (NFP) board, it occurs that (without realizing it), on that first tour I was crossing the threshold into a long-term, committed relationship, if not a marriage. Ironically, if I had I properly understood the role of a board and been seeking this in the most traditional sense, I might not have gone for it. The fact was I gave none of that any thought, and only wanted something to do that felt meaningful, with good people and lots of flexibility.
I cannot overestimate how transformative this relationship has been for me. I think I did good work as a volunteer for KidsAbility – and still do as an ambassador – but in addition, the experience of serving on this NFP board has been integral to my growth in governance. The more I leaned in, the more I personally got out of it; both greater insights into how to support the organization and more opportunity for personal growth. Upon assuming the role of vice-Chair in 2015, I started reading about governance wherever I could find good material. I reached out to leaders in the community who had served in executive positions on boards and tried to learn from them. I enrolled in a two-day boot camp through Capacity Canada that marked my first formal governance training. All of this set the stage for where I am today, because I had such a positive and developmental experience.
For many of us, the board journey starts with a NFP board. These range from ‘roll up your shirtsleeves’ extensions of staff to pure oversight boards, whose chief responsibility is hiring and oversight of the Executive Director. The point of sharing my early experience with you is to reinforce how rewarding service on these boards can be, both in terms of impact and on personal growth. Over the last 25 years there have been major strides in the practice of corporate governance in Canada and around the world, and this has spilled over into the non-profit sector. Consider that even with boards that are less mature from a governance standpoint, with the right people, cause and aspirations, the opportunities can be limitless.