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Family Service Toronto (FST) wanted its board to look more like the community the agency served. It had just improved its governance and had a new strategic direction, but if the board was to reflect the city’s demographic mix, it would need more ethno-racial diversity, more people from LGBTQ communities, more women and young people. With targeted recruiting and help from Maytree’s roster of candidates, it has succeeded.
Now a confidential, annual, on-line survey helps members to evaluate the board’s progress and their own. Shrinking the board by one-third has increased attendance and engagement. A higher proportion of diverse board members may be making difficult issues easier to raise. To benefit from the diversity of perspectives at the table, the board has also experimented with techniques to overcome the pressure for consensus and reluctance to express minority opinions.
A “learning framework” has made it easier to plan a year’s workshops and presentations tailored to the organization’s strategic objectives, and the use of a “consent agenda” has freed up more meeting time for substantive discussion and ongoing board education.
By being engaged in governance, FST directors enjoy the challenges of participating in a “work in progress.”
A commitment to care for one another
From its beginnings over 90 years ago as the volunteer Neighbourhood Workers Association, Family Service Toronto (FST) has always served the needs of and advocated for Toronto’s most vulnerable residents. Today, FST helps more than 63,000 Torontonians a year to improve relationships, to work together to build their communities, and to cope more effectively with life’s challenges – childhood trauma, depression, coming out, living with HIV/AIDS or other illness, violence, bereavement, overcoming social isolation and marginalization.
FST’s clients are diverse as Toronto itself. They include parents and children struggling with separation and divorce, seniors and their caregivers, women in abusive relationships, people in the LGBTQ (lesbian, bi-, gay, trans-, queer) community, people with intellectual disabilities, and new immigrants and refugees. Programs are offered at ten locations throughout the city and in fourteen languages. FST’s public service announcements appear in Hindi, Somali, Russian, Tamil and Spanish as well as in English.
FST defines family as “Two or more people, whether living together or apart, related by blood, marriage, adoption or commitment to care for one another,” and the agency adheres rigorously to the values of equity and inclusion. Through counselling and community development, research and advocacy, it continues to be at the forefront of the struggle to create a just Canadian society by changing hearts, minds, and lives – ready to take on challenges, often seeing before anyone else what those challenges should be, and letting Canadians know why they should care.
“What has to change is those of us around the table”
Family Service Toronto knew when it merged with the Toronto Counselling Centre for Lesbians and Gays, more than a decade ago, that it was important to have LGBTQ people on the board if it was to best serve that community’s needs. But it also recognized that the city and its needs were always evolving. In 2008 the organization itself evolved, developing a new strategic plan and making improvements to its governance structure, practices, and focus. Family Service Association of Toronto became Family Service Toronto. And among its most important goals was to diversify the board to reflect the new face of Toronto.
“Often, you lose sight of one or two priorities. But diversity stayed right at the top,” says director Derek Ballantyne, who served as chair of the governance committee during that time. “What has to change is those of us around the table. It is our responsibility, nobody else’s, to actually make those changes. The biggest challenge is: where do you start, and how do you get going?”
As Janet McCrimmon who is FST’s director of research, evaluation and planning and worked with the governance committee explains, “We recognized that the board, staff and management have to look like the community – it’s built right into the strategic direction. It’s not just about ethno-racial or ethno-cultural diversity. It’s also about ability, gender, sexual orientation, [and] age.”
“Research informs how we recruit for our board,” continues McCrimmon. Each year a skills, experience, and linkages inventory of the FST board is produced, as well as a demographic assessment (based on Statistics Canada questions so that the data gathered can be readily compared with Stats Can’s own figures). Last year, when it was compared to the city’s demographic makeup, one of the gaps identified was the need for more ethno-racial diversity, more women, more from the LGBTQ communities, more young people.
In the past, FST had tried to recruit candidates who had already worked with the agency, as volunteers on committees or in working groups. But, says Ballantyne, “If we had continued to insist on that experience, the transition … would have taken longer and been much more difficult. We stepped outside those policies and said, ‘If [diversity] is really what we’re trying to achieve, just do it. Get it going.’”
“We used the Maytree web site to invite applicants, as well as asking board members and senior staff to contribute names,” recalls board chair Harlan Schonfeld. Such deliberate targeting succeeded. “This was a very successful year,” he says, “We’ve moved dramatically in terms of age, gender, and ethno-racial makeup.”
FST sought to build a board that reflects rather than represents the community. McCrimmon explains: “We want to benefit from the experiences that people have, who they are as people, what knowledge they have of their communities ― but the first commitment of members has to be to serve the interests of the organization.”
Nevertheless, diversity in the boardroom leads to an organization better able to serve all its communities. Director Hari Viswanathan agrees. Although he isn’t there to represent the South Asian point of view, “I have the perspective of a person of colour who may be able to bring up some issues ― around racism in terms of accessing services, for example.”
Seven candidates answered a standard questionnaire during 60-minute interviews with a board panel. “We wanted to be sure that they understood the commitment they were going to be making,” says Schonfeld. Among other things, they answered questions about their experiences working with diverse groups, and about their attitude to equity and inclusion.
In addition to the skills inventory, each year board members fill out a confidential on-line survey to assess their effectiveness and engagement as individual members and as a board. Questions, which change every year, may include whether members encourage each other to participate fully in governance work, and whether people are comfortable raising issues where differences of opinion or conflict are expected. Viswanathan explains that this tool gives the board the opportunity “to self-reflect and have a 360-degree evaluation of the organization, of board members, and of how we’re moving forward. It’s pretty amazing.”
Shrinking the board from twenty-one to fourteen directors has also increased the level of attendance and of engagement. “For many people it was counterintuitive, [but] with a very large board, it’s like dining at three tables,” says Ballantyne. “You can never appreciate one whole conversation.”
But even with a smaller board, if members aren’t comfortable voicing opinions, or feel pressure to quickly come to consensus, the organization won’t benefit from diverse perspectives. Again with the help of research, the FST board discovered a few methods to facilitate a more-inclusive conversation.
One way to open up the discussion is to have a “silent start” – before anyone speaks on a topic, each director takes a moment to formulate his or her own perspective on the topic and put it on paper. People are less likely to be influenced by anybody else’s opinion when they have already identified their own. Another technique is to designate a board member the “devil’s advocate” ― with an opposing view voiced in this way, people become less hesitant to express their own opinions.
Just increasing the board’s diversity helps, as well. Says Viswanathan, “[Although] there were persons of colour on the board in the past, I heard they felt alone in bringing up ideas.” With a higher proportion of diverse members at the table, he feels that difficult issues are now easier to raise.
“Learning about diversity, equity and inclusion is an ongoing journey,” says Margaret Hancock, FST’s executive director. A new tool for building the board’s knowledge is a “learning framework,” developed with the input of directors at the beginning of each year. This plan “gives us a year of learning attached to the strategic directions and to the equity and inclusion framework in which we work.”
By using a “consent agenda” ― putting items such as the ED’s report, the president’s report, and the approval of the minutes in a document that can be approved in one motion― more time at each meeting is now freed up for substantive discussion and for ongoing education.
“You don’t know how limiting things can be for people simply because of their physical condition, their mental condition, or their gender or age,” says Schonfeld. The board has learned about the experiences of transgender people, persons with disabilities, and broadened their understanding of equity and inclusion. “It’s only through continuing to learn about what anti-oppression is that you realize there’s always someone who will feel a barrier, and that it needs to be addressed.” Is there wheelchair access to the building? Can everybody read and understand board documents? What other accommodations might be needed?
“It’s a work in progress for everyone,” says Ballantyne. “The FST board is engaged in the conscious act of governance of the organization.” And the board clearly enjoys the challenges. Says chair Schonfeld, smiling, “People feel it’s a privilege to be on the board, and a privilege to serve the organization.”