Corporate Perspective of Serving on a Non-Profit Board

Vantage Point

I have spanned a very fulfilling career of a quarter-century in the corporate world. The opportunity to volunteer on a non-profit board has unexpectedly caused many "course corrections" on my life-long journey. As my learning lens continues to focus and refocus for clarification of this experience, I have bumped into many large rocks that have challenged my previously held perceptions of the voluntary sector and raised my awareness, learning and understanding to a new plateau. Ultimately this has led to increased participation and advocacy for the sector.

This learning includes an enlightened understanding of what I refer to as the "operational" differences within the two sectors; a long overdue "de-mything" of commonly held misperceptions of the voluntary sector, and thirdly, the realization that we are indeed living in "interesting times." The voluntary sector is leading a re-balancing of power in our society with the collaboration of government-and, hopefully, business. Existing models and processes in support of healthy, vibrant, sustainable communities without the ongoing challenges of inadequate capacity needs to evolve for the betterment of all citizens.

"Operational" difference is what I coin as the major governance difference between the sectors. Towing the bottom-line mantra for years, I soon understood that indeed the two sectors are very different in how they develop their mission, values and principles-and, indeed, in how they evaluate their successes and failures. Let's face it, market capitalization and profit growth are effective measures of a corporation's long-term viability. These are not the same for a non-profit organization. This is only one-only one--component of its mission statement - albeit a critical one if continuing deficits lead to the demise of the organization. The mission of the non-profit organization also includes the service factor it delivers to its many diverse constituencies and the inherent challenges in measuring the success of effecting positive, sustainable benefits.

Leadership within the corporate world relies solely on the CEO, while the ED of the non-profit organization reports to the non-executive chair. My experience from the corporate side is that CEOs are given full latitude to implement strategy--oftentimes fuelled by large egos. Not so in the nonprofit world. The ED must balance and manage a relationship with an elected non-executive chair. Often there are three, four, or more different chairs over their tenure. My view here is that the role of an ED is oftentimes more stressful than that of a CEO.

Board composition is yet another difference worthy of note. Corporate boards are normally small and limited in scope. There are pre-determined profiles and usually consist of senior business professionals that are normally well-paid. Non-profit boards are typically large with many working committees. The members have diverse profiles, diverse roles, high turnover, convene board meetings after normal business hours, and are paid with ninety-nine variations of "thank you."

So once I understood structure variances, my attention focused on functional efficiencies. How does the non-profit world run its day-today business?

Myth: employees work normal business hours
Fact: their dedication of living their mission oftentimes finds them working more hours than employees working in corporations

Myth: non-profit organizations are idealistically driven and have no money sense
Fact: non-profit organizations can teach corporations a thing or two about avoiding financial waste and stretching the buck in very creative ways

Myth: employees working in nonprofit organizations have few business skills
Fact: employees are oftentimes multi-task agents of change and have acquired many more skill sets than employees working in a business environment.

Indeed, non-profit organizations were likely operating in a service quality environment long before corporations coined the phrase. They were long ago enlightened about the benefits of continuous process improvement, respect for the individual, and teamwork.

"Interesting times" is likely an understatement. Never before have we experienced such a quiet social revolution that will inevitably impact all citizens' journeys toward a much different tomorrow. The Voluntary Sector Roundtable is mobilizing across the country, aided by a $90 million infusion of funding from our Federal Government. As you are called upon to become engaged with this process, I encourage you all, in particular the corporate sector, to "put your hand up" and stay involved. A good first start would be to encourage your employees to offer their skills in support of non-profit boards. As I have experienced, they too will discover an enhanced perspective.

Daniel Patrick O'Grady has been on the Calgary Workplace Volunteer Council for five years and was formerly Manager of the Canadian Airlines Foundation. He is presently Manager of Community Investments at Enbridge.

"Vantage Point" is the quarterly newsletter of Volunteer Vancouver,

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Posted with permission from Volunteer Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.