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When United Way Toronto (UWT) reduced the size of its board of trustees, representing the community still had to be a priority. To be effective, UWT’s trustees must reflect the multicultural and multigenerational nature of Toronto.
Shrinking the board from 44 to 23 made it more engaged, but having trustees with the right skill sets was key. Candidates came from UWT’s links with academia, not-for-profits, labour unions, government and the public sector; its fundraising Workplace Campaign connected it with corporate and business communities; and the more than 200 agencies it funds provided highly-qualified potential trustees.
Detailed meeting agendas and supporting documentation encourage effective and appropriate board participation by helping to furnish context, and help guide and focus the discussion.
As a result of its efforts, from 2002 to 2010 board diversity went from 28% to 61%. Understanding the importance of diversity and reflecting it across the whole organization is the goal, according to Frances Lankin, UWT’s president and CEO, and policies and procedures have been put in place.
From its inception in the mid-1950s, the United Way Toronto (UWT, then the United Community Appeal of Greater Toronto) recognized the importance of embracing the city’s diversity. Within a few years, it was producing materials targeted to ethnocultural groups, receiving coverage in Toronto’s foreign-language media, and had formed a standing committee dedicated to promoting the organization to ethnic communities. In the 1980s, UWT committed to become even more diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of the agencies and charitable programs it funded, but also in its appeal to fundraisers and volunteers. Black, Chinese, Greek, Italian and South Asian committees were created to involve Toronto’s five largest cultural communities in fundraising. There has also been targeted outreach to the Portuguese, Korean and Filipino communities, among others.
Some of its most effective fundraising is through workplace campaigns, with employee teams competing with each other to raise the most money and employers sometimes matching their contributions. By engaging individuals and mobilizing collective action, UWT’s 2009 campaign raised $109 million – a North American record in a difficult year. One of Canada’s 117 United Ways/Centraides, UWT has raised more than $1.5 billion over the years for the Toronto’s neediest and most vulnerable.
“Just do it”
When United Way Toronto (UWT) decided that a smaller board would operate more effectively, there was concern that reducing board size would also risk reducing its diversity. But the board knew that given the work the organization does, being representative of the community had to be a priority. So it supported the executive decision to recruit trustees from diverse backgrounds within the context of reducing the number of members – “In other words, to just do it,” says Frances Lankin, the former Ontario cabinet minister who has led UWT’s transformation from 2001 to 2010 as its president and CEO. It worked, she says. “What we found was that – in some ways – making the initial decision was the hardest part.” But since the board was reducing the number of trustees from 44 to 23, finding diverse candidates with the right skill sets was key.
It was less of a challenge for UWT than it might be for other organizations. The United Way’s Workplace Campaign reaches deep into corporate and business communities, and its partnerships allows it to connect with people in academia, not-for-profits, labour unions, and various levels of government and the public sector. In addition, UWT funds more than 200 agencies that form an important part of the support system for Toronto’s new immigrants. Within these networks UWT has found many highly-qualified people willing to commit their time and talents to the organization as well. “We learned that the right individuals were not only available, but eager to join us and lend their skills, experience and perspective,” says Lankin. From 2002 to 2010 diverse representation on the board went from 28% to 61%.
When board chair Alnasir Samji began serving on United Way committees more than a decade ago, he recalls that diverse representation was already the norm. Now it is “embedded in the culture – ‘part of the DNA,’” he says. When recruiting for senior staff and board positions, “we look at meritocracy – we look far, and look wide. That invariably means a blend of the community.”
But special attention still needs to be given to marginalized groups, Samji says, noting that it has often taken years, even generations, for people from disadvantaged communities to gain the expertise and influence needed by boards. He doesn’t think society can afford to wait that long. “We can’t have the ‘same-old same-old’ going forward,” he says.
He feels that marginalized groups must be given opportunities and the right kind of mentoring. “Seeing their own community members being represented in senior leadership positions within organizations is very encouraging for people,” he says. “More than that – in some cases it’s quite inspiring. It creates the environment that says ‘I can do it, too.’” However the value of having a diverse board goes far beyond role-modelling, insists Samji. “It says that all people with capability can and should give and contribute, and leverage themselves to the highest point that they can.”
“There’s a direct connection between the level of fluency with diversity at UWT and our potential for influence and impact on the community,” says Lankin.
Now, rather than having a top-down approach with policy dictated by the executive and board, a working group of about twenty staff members – from every part and all levels of the organization – is responsible for championing the diversity learning process at UWT. The group has developed a team charter outlining goals and principles, mandate, and objectives. A “theory of change” helps UWT to measure its progress and to know if it is achieving its goals.
The team is currently designing tools for staff-wide education and training. It plans to share the benefits of diversity with UWT’s network of member agencies.
“When we take a community strategy or policy to the board, the diversity of views at the table informs and enriches the discussion, and the very different perspectives have an influence on the final strategy or policy – it’s a very dynamic thing,” says Lankin.
“The United Way has really done a great job to assist board members to participate in an effective manner at the appropriate governance level,” says Jean Lam, who was a trustee for two terms, and continues to sit on the Community Impact Committee. She describes the carefully-structured board meeting agendas, where items are very clearly set out and issues identified: ‘Is the item for information or for a decision? What is being presented to us? What commentary on a particular item is management looking for from the board?’ Recalls Lam, “There might be a summary or synopsis of a larger presentation, and there will be suggested questions that board members might think about as they look at the material,” which is helpful in guiding the discussion. “Sometimes when you have diversity of views and diversity of perspective, you also need to be able to bring people onto the same page, so they understand the context, the decisions that have been made in the past, how this fits in terms of overall plans.”
United Way Toronto’s trustees have always represented many facets of Canadian society – labour, the public sector, business, and non-governmental agencies. “Problems today are so complex that no one sector can do it alone,” says Lankin. “We have to work together. Gender, racial, physical ability, intellectual, professional, and cultural diversity all add value and broaden our perspective,” and make UWT more connected and more relevant.
“We recruit to committees first,” notes Lankin. “The organization’s volunteer committee structure is an essential part of the pipeline to the top roles.” Says Lam, “In many cases, joining committees allows people to get a sense of the organization and then to determine – both from their perspective and the board’s perspective – whether they’d be moving on to a governance capacity.”
“To do our work effectively, United Way must reflect both the multicultural and multigenerational nature of our community. We’re working very hard to become an inclusive and culturally fluent organization – at all levels,” says Lankin. In addition to providing wheelchair access to its facilities, UWT makes accommodation for visually impaired staff and volunteers, and provides interpretation in American Sign Language at all staff meetings, which are held four to five times a year.
United Way Toronto is proud of how far it has come. Winning Maytree’s 2009 Diversity in Governance Award further “strengthens our commitment to be as diverse and inclusive as the communities we serve,” says Lankin. “Our goal is for diversity and inclusion to become an integral part of who we are and what we do.”