50 Stories Part 46: Eyes In and Fingers Out – Board support in the 2010s
Image: The 2018-2019 Board of Directors at our 2018 Annual General Meeting.
Over the last decade Distress Centre’s Board has kept to its governance role, with a focus on strategic planning. They defined the organization’s primary role as crisis intervention, and with support from major funders FCSS and United Way, they advocated that Distress Centre’s crisis lines and 211 be considered the hub of crisis services in Calgary. When economic challenges once again appeared, fundraising and risk mitigation became a board focus as well.
Greg Clark, son of two earlier Board members, speaks to his role on the Board:
“I joined the board in 2012 because I believed in the organization’s mission. It was on the front line of what was, at that time, a burgeoning awareness of mental health issues. I would have loved to stay on, but I went into politics and became an MLA instead.
“I think they wanted me on the board both for my IT experience, and my entrepreneurial background. I remember many board conversations about funding. We were primarily a governance board, and we were hiring the Executive Directors which is a core governance function.”
Governance not operational
Sandy Pound, outgoing Board member after five years, speaks to her experiences:
“I feel like the Board of 2019 is very strong because of the work we have done over the years identifying what skills we needed going forward. We looked for personal attributes, a dynamic fit for the organization, HR, legal, technical, leadership skills, Board experience, community involvement, networking, and productivity.
“Spending time in the call room is one of the requirements, or recommendations for all new board members. We go on the lines, listen and observe. It helps us understand the importance of the work and gives us a really good sense of the types of issues we support. A fairly new initiative is having someone from the Leadership team join our Board meetings, tell us a few stories and bring some of the work they do to life. That really, really, brings it home and makes it real for the work that we do as volunteers.
“An expectation is that Board members personally support fundraising initiatives and that we are advocates in the community with our employers and friends and family. We are very much eyes in and fingers out as we work very hard not to be operational.”
The current 2019-2022 strategic plan, built before the pandemic, is to ensure capacity meets demand, expand in a sustainable way, have the right people and support those people at all levels of organization. The major goal of finding new space to meet current needs was accomplished in February 2020.
Janet Segato, current Board Chair, speaks to her role:
“For the move, the biggest role at the board level was a review of the lease, and supporting Jerilyn Dressler (ED) with the lease negotiation. We got our first tour about a week before it opened to the public. The idea of a move was pretty overwhelming. The team was in the space for less than 6 weeks when they had to move to working from home. The new space and new COVID protocols will make it a much safer space when staff and volunteers start to re-enter. (Note: We began re-entry with enhanced safety protocols in June)
“It is always good to have strength on the board in terms of finance and expertise in accounting, legal. In the last couple of years, we have been looking for people who have experience in change management, social media, lots of different skill sets.
“The most common theme for incoming Board members is that people really support the mission, and a lot of times people will share with us that they have had a friend or a family member who has been helped by the DC, or they have been involved in a fundraising capacity. Some people are looking for board experience, some people are looking to give back to the community, it is a little bit of everything.
''The most common theme for incoming Board members is that people really support the mission, and a lot of times people will share with us that they have had a friend or a family member who has been helped by the DC.'' - Janet Segato
“We were in the process of transitioning to a new board chair when COVID-19 hit. Leadership was in crisis mode and having the continuity for the DC team would be valuable so I stayed in the role. It is working well.
“We have formed a COVID committee which meets regularly just to make sure that Jerilyn has people she can bounce ideas off of. We are in uncharted waters.
“We do a board retreat with the leadership team in November. The focus is a little bit different every year. Two years ago, we were very focused on creating a strategic plan. Last fall it was focused at looking at disruptions in the non-profit sector, and understanding the different changes that could happen or might happen. None of us predicted that a virus would be what actually disrupted us.
“A big element of our plan is self care. With an organization like DC, you can’t take care of others if you are in crisis or overworked. I am quite proud of that, and I think it really does show everyone that the organization is walking the walk.
''A big element of our plan is self care. With an organization like DC, you can’t take care of others if you are in crisis or overworked.'' - Janet Segato
“The work we do with the Canada Suicide Prevention Service has been an area with lots of challenges and one I think that has been a huge opportunity for the organization to represent best in class in Canada. There were times at the Board level where we asked ourselves, do we need to step away from this, is it eating up too much of our resources, is it outside of our mandate? Would I consider it a success even though we are not through it yet? Yes.”
The current strategic goals for the organization include ensuring volunteers and staff are prepared for and supported in their roles, in order to create an environment that promotes human connection and excellence in service delivery. This looks very different in a world of social distancing, but staff, volunteers and the Board, have been working hard to meet the needs of the community, and bring a sense community back to staff and volunteers until everyone is no longer working from home.