Bringing diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels

Typically a network responds to the needs and priorities of its members. In the case of Pillar’s work related to board diversity and volunteering for newcomers, visible minorities and under-represented groups, we were responding to research that showed a gap in representation in nonprofits. As London was increasingly becoming more diverse, our nonprofit sector leadership was not reflective of our demographic reality. Board governance is where oversight, strategic direction, and policy are determined for nonprofits and charities. A lack of diversity at this level has significant implications at the decision-making table. 

When we first brought these issues forward, we found ourselves needing to gently nudge the sector to keep people open to the discussion and to encourage them to be bold enough to communicate the evidence of the lack of diversity in our organizations and network. Over the years, Pillar has had 10 funded projects related to this topic and we now weave diversity and equity into our governance, learning and development programs, and consulting programs. Today, we demonstrate a bolder approach to naming the oppression, power and privilege in the nonprofit sector and our communities.

Our current strategic plan theme of “Be Inclusive” and the way we provoke discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues are just two of the ways we demonstrate our commitment to championing diversity and inclusion in our own organization and our network. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the research we have conducted on these topics and how it has guided the projects and programs we have offered and continue to offer at Pillar. Read more if you want to learn about why the principles of diversity and inclusion have been integral to building our network, and how you can leverage our learnings to guide your own organizational practices.  

Laying the foundation with research 

Pillar conducted research in 2004 related to participation and inclusion levels of racialized communities and new Canadians – immigrants to Canada within the last ten years – in nonprofit organizations. The study, London’s Voluntary Sector Employment and Training Needs Study, showed that only “one in five organizations recruited visible minority volunteers on their board (20.9 percent) and fewer than 10 percent of organizations recruited at least one newcomer to their board of directors”. The survey went on to reveal that some organizations choose not to hire newcomers to their board since they feel these individuals do not bring with them the experience and contacts that other candidates provide.

Building on the labour market survey, Pillar led another research study “A New Canadian’s First Decade of Volunteering: Examining Ways to Involve New Canadians in Community Organizations” about how organizations need to reflect on the ways they could assist new Canadians as they struggle in this new environment. For example, it is equally important to include new Canadians amongst an organization’s staff, volunteers and clients. Many new Canadians are seeking paid employment in Canada and have learned that volunteering is a way to not only give back to society and help others, but also to improve job opportunities. 

Given that organizations are looking for volunteers to fill shortages, and new Canadians are looking to volunteer to improve job opportunities, it seems like a logical fit for organizations to recruit new Canadians. New Canadians can offer a wealth of skills to an organization, and in turn, the organization can help new Canadians as they learn more about Canadian culture and try to improve their English skills and job opportunities. The results of our study showed that cultural differences, language barriers and discrimination make this solution complex. The challenge lies in finding organizations to recruit them as volunteers in order for them to develop language skills, make contacts, gain Canadian experience and references. 

In 2005, Pillar wanted to determine how new Canadians have experienced volunteering in their country of origin and how that might shape their view of volunteering in Canada with a research study called “The Meaning of Volunteering – Examining the Meaning of Volunteering to New Canadians”. The results revealed that understanding the concept of volunteering was connected to the new Canadians country of origin, religion, economic reality, gender stereotypes and length of time in Canada. With the findings of both of these studies in mind, we have carried out a variety of projects to shift the culture around volunteering for new Canadians, visible minorities and under-represented groups. 

Moving from research to action

Given the demographic reality and increasing interest from nonprofit organizations to address diversity issues at a governance level, we embarked on “The Board Diversity Project” in September 2006. This project was funded by a grant from Canadian Heritage through its Multiculturalism & Aboriginal Peoples’ Programs. The main objectives of this project were:

  • To help nonprofit boards of directors become more inclusive and reflective of the community by providing training, tools, support and resources that will enable them to implement organizational change.
  • To increase the capacity, knowledge and confidence of individuals from ethno-racial communities who are interested in serving in leadership positions, thereby creating a new pool of skilled board candidates.
  • To raise awareness in the nonprofit sector and beyond about the importance of creating inclusive, responsive and accessible organizations and institutions.

As our work with the organizations began, it became clear that many of the boards desired to become more diverse but lacked the necessary tools to do so in an equitable way. Comments such as “we want to increase our board diversity, but we don’t know how” or “our board members are to bring money and influence” were very common. The project addressed these issues and supported 18 nonprofit organizations with tools including cultural competency self-assessments, professional development workshops at a group and individual level, and board orientation sessions to prospective board members from ethno-racial communities. With the help of skilled diversity consultants and facilitators, training materials and action planning tools were created with each participating organization. 

While we had some success with the program, it did face some resistance and there was more participation from smaller organizations and those who already had a mandate to support diverse individuals in the community. As a summary of the learnings and materials from the project, we developed two toolkits on board diversity and volunteering at leadership tables

Getting clear on the needs of new Canadians

Both the 2005 research study about the “Meaning of Volunteering” and our early experience with the Board Diversity Project revealed that priorities for new Canadians needed to be language skills, housing, schooling and employment – essentially their basic needs. Engaging as board members and at leadership tables was typically not a first priority and our target for the board diversity program expanded to encompass visible minorities and under-represented groups. 

From 2007-2008, we were funded to create City of London brochures on “Volunteering and New Canadians” in English and translated into Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish and a board orientation program. From these projects we realized that if you offer tools in different languages there will be an expectation that you have those languages being spoken among your team. At this time, we also received funding to offer sessions about how to get started volunteering, rather than just board orientations, to support new Canadians and immigrants with understanding the Canadian context for volunteering and how to access opportunities that fit with their needs and interests.

Advancing cultural diversity in volunteer management 

In 2008, Pillar was a partner for the “Advancing Cultural Diversity in Volunteer Management” project. Both volunteer management and diversity management are often under-valued within organizations and, therefore, under-resourced. This project sought to effectively integrate cultural diversity in volunteer management. The goal was to develop the organizational and community capacity of non-profit organizations in the 519 and 905 area code regions of the province to recruit and support a more culturally diverse volunteer base. One of the learnings for Pillar was that the screening process for volunteers has inherent barriers for newcomers including immunization records and police records checks. Access to immunization records and past experience with the police in some of the countries of origin for those newer to Canada impact inclusion and access to volunteering. While screening processes are necessary, the requirements need to be considered against the probability of risk. 

Board governance is where oversight, strategic direction, and policy are determined for nonprofits and charities. A lack of diversity at this level has significant implications at the decision-making table. It is imperative for us to continue to examine power and privilege in the pursuit of a world that is equitable and inclusive for all. 

Calling our community to action

Along with our partners K-W Counselling Services and United Way of Windsor-Essex County, we hosted the “Community Action Forum: Creating inclusive and diverse nonprofit organizations” in 2008 in an effort to build ecosystems of learning and support. The event brought together ninety individuals from the three communities of London-Middlesex, Windsor-Essex and Kitchener-Waterloo with to encourage dialogue and learning about the changing face of communities; board diversity; the benefits of cultural competency models; making a plan for organizational change; engagement strategies for ethno-cultural communities; implementing diversity in a unionized environment; building equitable leadership and partnerships; and recruitment and retention strategies. From this forum, a strong underpinning emerged that we cannot address cultural diversity without addressing racism. We also produced a report to share the rich learnings from the event with a wider audience. 

Developing training for the sector

After the Community Action Forum, it was clear to us that this work needed to continue in our community. In 2009, we lead a project “Diversity & Anti-Racism Training for Nonprofits” funded by London Community Foundation to increase the capacity, knowledge and confidence of nonprofit organizations to create more culturally competent organizations and ultimately increase representation of board members from diverse communities. The learning from this project was that while many organizations go to great lengths to make their workplaces more equitable at the front-line level, at the leadership and governance level, work still needs to be done to recognize the importance of diversity and equity work. Boards of directors need a constant reminder that these issues should be a part of everything the organization does. It takes time to walk people through the process of understanding the importance of the work and to agree to take the time to do the work.

Working with settlement organizations

Over the years, we have had some staff in settlement organizations sending new Canadians to Pillar to find a volunteer position related to their career path. While this is possible for some careers, quite often we had to clarify that the roles in nonprofits and charities can be very different than other industries. As a result of the pattern we were seeing and the disappointment that often resulted, we decided to train the staff at settlement organizations about volunteering and our role at Pillar. In 2010, we launched a one year project  “The Art of Volunteering for New Canadians,” funded by Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The project was a collaborative comprised of London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, London Public Library, LUSO Community Services, South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre and Pillar that brought together the settlement organizations in London to facilitate full and active participation of ethno-racial/cultural communities in volunteer roles. Through learning opportunities, volunteer referral and staff training, this project alleviated confusion and provided better service support to new Canadians about volunteering.

Taking board diversity to the next level

When DiverseCity onBoard – a board matching program that originated in Toronto – was expanding its programs through partnerships across Canada, our commitment to board diversity positioned us as a natural partner. Pillar was invited to participate in a planning session in Berlin, Germany where Accenture facilitated a business planning process to look at how to sustain and support this program in various cities. The organization was able to develop a social enterprise model that included revenue sharing for the training fees for both the participants and nonprofits accessing diverse board members. 

We then went on to become the lead partner for a three-year funding program for DiverseCity onBoard with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the partner cities Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto. This collaborative was formed to address the under-representation of visible minorities and immigrant communities in leadership positions in governance bodies of nonprofit and public sector organizations (including agencies, boards, and commissions). The dedicated staff and financial resources available for this project, along with the ability to share learning across the organizations, amplified the reach and awareness of this work. In tandem to our work, there was also deep community conversation emerging about racism and oppression and we found that nonprofits no longer needed to be convinced about why this was important in the same way as we experienced during our early work. 

As an outcome of this project, we recognized that representation on boards was not enough and that what we needed to shift the needle on was whether the voices at the table were being heard and valued. In the end, we experienced some setbacks on the project. The social enterprise model did not work because the revenue share was not significant enough to sustain the program. Further, candidates were not keen to pay for the online training and we sourced funding for bursaries. Today, we continue to work as a partner of the organization to help local organizations with board matching and governance training to ensure qualified candidates from visible minorities are not excluded from positions of influence.

Confirming the realities of representation

While we knew our boards lacked representation of visible minorities and women, we recognized that formal research to confirm this was needed to legitimize any future work in this area and to set a baseline to measure the impact of our board diversity efforts. Western University Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Studies and Pathways to Prosperity partnered on a research study to examine the level of visible minority representation in leadership positions in the municipal public and nonprofit sectors in the cities of London, Hamilton and Ottawa. In addition, the project examined the representation of female visible minorities and of women overall in these positions. In London, only 7.9 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were identified as visible minorities compared to 13.1 percent of the general London population and only 3.1 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were visible minority women compared to 6.5 percent of the London population. 

Ongoing programs and commitments  

Today, Pillar has a Director, Diversity and Governance who is deeply involved in community engagement, provides learning and development as well as consulting services that have embedded diversity and equity into the curriculum and approach. Despite not having ongoing funding, we still offer the board diversity matching. Our public policy strategy at the municipal, provincial and federal levels is based on our network principle of equity and inclusion. Our communities have significant levels of oppression and racism and there is collective work that needs to happen at an individual, organizational and network level to shift this. It is imperative for us to continue to examine power and privilege in the pursuit of a world that is equitable and inclusive for all.