Reimagining board governance at Pillar

Every nonprofit and charity must have a board of directors to guide the organization, ensure it has adequate financial resources to be sustainable and advance its mission. Since its inception, Pillar has engaged in board research and played a capacity building role to support the development of high performing and diverse boards. Read about how we have supported our members through our research, learning and development programs, and consulting, along with how our own board journey has evolved and the tools we use to help guide us. For more information on how we strive to embed diversity into our own board practices and share our knowledge with our network, read Bringing diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels

How research has shaped our network approach to board governance

The research we have conducted has consistently shown that our boards lack diversity and are not representative of the London community. In 2004, the London Voluntary Sector Employment Training and Needs survey showed that fewer than 10 percent of organizations recruited at least one newcomer to their board of directors. This sparked additional research to dig deeper and we conducted a study called “A New Canadian’s First Decade of Volunteering” to explore how nonprofits have incorporated new Canadians into their volunteer base and what new Canadians need from organizations to support them in volunteering. The results of this study showed cultural differences, language levels and discrimination make this solution complex. This study further confirmed there was a lack of diversity on boards and respondents indicated that adding diversity training and mentoring supports helps both the organization and the new volunteer.

In 2016, as part of the DiverseCity onBoard project, we participated in further research in partnership with Western University and MITACS looking at “Visible Minorities and Women in Senior Leadership Positions: London, Hamilton, Ottawa.” 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. In London, 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. These results demonstrated there is still much work to be done to ensure that the voices of visible minorities and in particularly visible minority women, are represented in senior leadership positions in the nonprofit and public sectors. These findings have helped to shape our areas of focus in both our learning and development and our consulting programs.

Building capacity through learning and development for boards 

Education has been a core offering since the inception of Pillar and board governance training has been a central topic. Our board education offerings have included sessions specific to board diversity and we have integrated the concepts of building board diversity into organizations in all board programming. In 2012, we shifted from single course offerings to a program based approach called All About Boards that is offered annually in the fall and includes topics such as board structure, roles and responsibilities, governance policies, financial role, recruitment and retention, board diversity, best practice and trends. Through this training, the participants also develop a professional network of peers. Each year we have included a session of best practices and trends and these have included board diversity, governing through changing times, the role of the board in government relations, generational changes, mergers and partnerships, as well as social enterprise and social finance. We have suggested that board members go back to their board meetings and share their learnings with their board.

To help support an organization’s full board to dig deeper we have offered board governance training through the Willy Van Klooster Nonprofit Governance Scholarship. The scholarship was established in 2008 to honour the founding and long-serving Chair of Pillar Nonprofit Network and his exemplary leadership in board governance. It was awarded annually to build excellence in board governance of a small- to medium-sized member organization of Pillar. The scholarship was aimed at organizations who wished to enhance the governance capacity of their board and ensure a productive relationship between their board and executive director. One organization was selected annually and provided support by a local consultant or coach depending on their governance needs. In 2019, the program evolved to become Board & Executive Director Partnership Coaching created to help executive directors and board chairs design their working alliance to create a high trust relationship. When an ED-board Chair partnership flourishes, it creates conditions for a high-performance board governance culture. We have had 13 board chair and ED pairs participate in this program with outstanding feedback and the program will continue going forward.

Pillar has had a strong history of a board who is committed to the needs of the community and to being adaptable and innovative. Board diversity training and making sure our board practices have an equity and inclusion lens have been cornerstone practices throughout our history. As board members change, our commitment to having an equity and inclusion lens continues.

The role of consulting in meeting the needs of boards

As our DiverseCity onBoard three year Ontario Trillium Foundation funded project was coming to an end, our Director Diversity & Governance started to take on a significant role as a consultant offering local organizations support related to board governance and board diversity. We are fortunate that the volume of contracts has now exceeded the time of one person focused in these areas. We have had great success in our consulting program in the areas of board policy development and review, board diversity training and board planning. 

Our story of board governance

Pillar has had a strong history of a board who is committed to the needs of the community and to being adaptable and innovative. Our board has strong governance policies and processes and yet can also be nimble and responsive to opportunities that arise. Board diversity training and making sure our board practices have an equity and inclusion lens have been cornerstone practices throughout our history. As board members change, our commitment to having an equity and inclusion lens continues. Our current strategic plan has us looking at the next stage of growth and being focused, for this reason the role of the board is ensuring we go deep with our impact and measure our impact. This change in focus for those who came on board as we were launching Innovation Works and VERGE Capital has impacted our board engagement. We are looking for opportunities for engagement and this will be the new board chair’s key priority during this term. A first step is to meet with each board member to better understand their goals, interests and opportunities to maximize their skills and energy.

The future of board governance

Pillar has been engaged in the Reimagining Governance project and we have been asking the question will the way boards work today serve us tomorrow? The project is a collaboration designed to advance new approaches to the governance of nonprofit organizations. The aim is to help nonprofit leaders reimagine a more effective way to fulfill organizational governance, including its structures, processes and practices. In partnership with London Youth Advisory Council and Ignite NPS, the Next Generation Governance: Emerging leaders’ perspectives on governance in the nonprofit sector report explored trends, views about governance and how the next generation of governance could meet their needs and expectations. 

Top 10 promising practices at Pillar

Here are some of the promising practices that the Pillar board has adopted over the years to enhance, engage and evaluate their board governance. Feel free to adapt our documents for your own board management purposes. 

  1. Board Diversity matrix – Use the matrix to assess areas including sector representations, perspectives, field of experience and areas of diversity. An analysis of what is needed to best reflect the community and strategy of the organization will help to ensure diverse perspectives at the board table.
  2. Board nomination process – We have learned that a public process is the most inclusive and promoting it through networks yields a strong and diverse pool of candidates.
  3. Board orientation – New board members attend a comprehensive board orientation to introduce them to our history, strategic plan, role of the board, policies, financials, board committees, programs and services, relationship between the board and the Executive Director, role of the board in fundraising, and the role of board in government relations. Orientation also includes and a further discussion from the interview about what they are hoping to get out of the volunteer experience. 
  4. Board mentors – Each new board member is paired with an existing board member with at least one year experience. For six months, they connect before and after each board meeting to onboard them and offer guidance and support.
  5. Board governance handbook – The policy committee of the board at Pillar does an annual review of the board governance manual to make revisions and reflect any changes required to guide and protect the organization. The manual includes executive limitations to guide the Executive Director. 
  6. Board action plan – Each year of our strategic plan we have a facilitated session to create a board action plan that will help us achieve our goals in our strategic plan. We start by revisiting the strategic plan and assess the impact to date and its relevance. This ensures that the strategic plan is adaptive and serving our members.
  7. Board evaluation – The board of directors annually completes a board evaluation about how well the board has done its job, how well the board has conducted itself, the board’s relationship to the Executive Director, feedback for the Board Chair and suggestions for improvement. A board member volunteers to compile the results and brings a brief forward with recommendations and a discussion at a subsequent board meeting.
  8. Board socials – During the holidays and summer we host board socials to connect the board on a more personal level and to create a sense of team building and connection.
  9. Board Chair and Executive Director partnership coaching – With each transition to a new board chair, the incoming chair and Executive Director participate in coaching to explore their strengths, shared vision, how they will engage the board, how to communicate and how to resolve conflict.
  10. Effective board meetings – We establish a sense of consistency and order by ensuring our Board Chair starts meetings on time, ends meetings on time and holding our meetings on the same recurring dates that do not change. Further, our Board Chair facilitates a discussion that trusts in the wisdom of the group and works to hear from all board members.