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The North York Seniors Centre (NYSC), established in 1974, annually serves more than 1,000 seniors from diverse backgrounds at its Active Living Centre, Day Away Program, Senior Care services and recreational programs. NYSC board members were predominantly Anglo-Saxon retirees until recently – although drawn mostly from the Centre’s users, the board had not begun to reflect the demographic changes occurring in North York, now one of the most diverse communities in Canada. Candidates with a broader range of ages, ethnicities, skills, and experience were recruited; when a residency requirement for board members was put aside, qualified and interested candidates began to be drawn from beyond North York’s borders; Maytree’s onBoard program, BoardMatch, and networking all contributed to the candidate pool. Today, the board comprises 60% business professionals and 40% retirees, men and women from their mid-twenties to their early seventies. It now includes speakers of Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hungarian, and there is ongoing outreach to other under-represented groups.
The board has become more hands-on as well as more diverse, and members are expected to fundraise and take on other tasks. The diverse abilities and backgrounds represented on the board have made it stronger and more responsive, and more able to connect with donors and with NYSC’s users. Diversifying the board has created opportunities for NYSC that it might not otherwise have had, by raising the organization’s profile and strengthening its community partnerships.
The opening of the Finch subway station in 1974 was part of a building boom that turned a sleepy and historic main street into a corridor of high-rise condominium towers and glassy office buildings. The neighbourhoods of small single-family bungalows and low-rise apartments beyond the Yonge Street corridor were also being transformed by intensive development.
At that time fully 20% of North York’s citizens were seniors, in contrast to less than eight percent in Canada itself. Seniors looking for a place to meet approached North York mayor Mel Lastman, and North York Seniors Centre (NYSC) soon opened its doors in a storefront plaza near Yonge and Finch. The Centre relocated a few times, moving to Hendon Avenue in 1987, and over the years NYSC’s range of programs and its membership grew.
According to the last census, almost half of the seniors who came to Canada between 1991 and 2001 settled in Toronto and the GTA. As this trend continues, the demand for services designed specifically for immigrant seniors will continue to grow. At the NYSC, there are programs to promote physical, emotional and social well-being for all seniors; today more than 800 members and 400 non-members participate in varied recreational activities at its Active Living Centre, and approximately 1600 clients receive A Day Away Club and Senior Care community services. NYSC gives people 55 and older the opportunity to share their skills and knowledge through volunteering, and enables the elderly to continue to enjoy healthy, safe and meaningful lives by helping them to stay independent, in their homes and in their own communities.
“There was a strategic approach”
For North York Seniors Centre (NYSC), “diversifying” has meant not only increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, but also attracting younger men and women to the board, and a mix of people with diverse skill sets and business experience.
In 2007, a board composition survey showed that with the exception of age, its makeup did not reflect NYSC’s clientele or the broader North York community, which is one of the most diverse in Canada. “The board was all user-based a few years ago,” and more of a formal body than a hands-on governing board, says Ildi Dereza, who has been on the board since 2009 and serves on NYSC’s governance committee.
The organization undertook a detailed skills and diversity gap analysis of the board. “Gaps were addressed through recruiting efforts,” says Dereza. “As members left, there was a strategic approach to recruiting new ones.” Today, the board is made up of 60% active business professionals and 40% retirees. Members now range in age from the mid-twenties to the early seventies.
After a series of facilitated planning sessions in 2009, the organization also decided to transition to a model in which the board plays a much more active governance role than it previously did. “The change has been managed as an evolutionary process, rather than a revolutionary one,” Dereza says. Board members are now expected to participate in fundraising activities and governance workgroups. “We are taking small steps to change the board and its members’ mindset. We learned that when we push too hard, we start to lose board members,” some of whom – especially those seniors who also use the NYSC’s services and facilities – have started to feel that demands on their time and energy have become too great.
In 2010, the governance committee will be looking to fill four or five seats (approximately one third of the board, which has fifteen members). The committee continues to use an annual board skill inventory to help to identify gaps and opportunities.
“We are much more ethnically diverse now,” Dereza says. The board, which previously had been predominantly English-speaking, now includes Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hungarian speakers, and there is ongoing outreach to other under-represented groups. “We feel that by diversifying the backgrounds that people bring, we’ll make a stronger and much more responsive board – it’s easier to go out to the communities we represent when you have contacts with that community. The evolution we’re going through right now is making the board much more strategic.”
The Korean, Vietnamese and Farsi signs lining the thriving Yonge Street corridor of North York north of Sheppard are graphic illustrations of the diversity of the neighbourhood. But recent immigrants who might reflect this increasingly diverse population as board members may not – or not yet – be English-speakers. “It’s not always easy finding someone who’s interested and who has the capabilities and who can contribute, as well as the language,” she concedes.
Initially, one criterion for board membership was that candidates were to be drawn exclusively from North York. “We’ve expanded it now,” says Dereza, who has recently returned as a resident after some years away. “We talk to the residents, we talk to the families [of our clients] – we try to reach out to as many places as we can. We’re constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for potential candidates.” All board members are encouraged to actively identify possible board members within their own networks, and candidates have been found through Maytree’s onBoard program and BoardMatch.
“A more inclusive board in itself has resulted in an increase of awareness of diversity within the board,” she says. NYSC’s diversity strategy includes training during orientation for new board members, and educational sessions as part of board meetings. A mentoring program that partners new members with more experienced ones also facilitates entry onto the board.
“Diversity definitely has an impact on the board’s effectiveness. It has enabled us to make better-informed decisions, and maximizes our opportunities to benefit the organization,” says Dereza. Board members with complementary skills and experiences give the board added insight into what services are important and what marketing materials are relevant, for example. “Everybody is very collaborative – all members are engaged in generating shared solutions, enabling us to draw on the best ideas and gain a broader perspective. [Chair] Peter Fuchs is very good at bringing the board together that way. And if we disagree, it’s discussed, so that we can live with it.”
She observes that board members act as ambassadors to their own networks and to external stakeholders, promoting the work that NYSC does, and its benefits to the community. “Diversity within the board has raised our profile and resulted in strengthened community partnerships. It gives NYSC access to different publics – and opened doors for the organization that may have otherwise remained closed.”