In my last post, I reflected on all of the growth we’ve been experiencing at Sustainable Waterloo Region recently, and ended with some of the challenges that have emerged as a result.

Today I’d like to pick up on one of those challenges: how our governance model has evolved over the past year in response to the needs of a growing non-profit start-up.

At Sustainable Waterloo Region, our Board’s purpose is to advise staff, oversee operations, guide the organization’s strategy, and provide governing leadership to ensure Sustainable Waterloo Region accomplishes its mission. The Board meets 5 times a year and has 3 subcommittees that are responsible for each of three key areas of the Board’s responsibility: (1) Strategic Planning, (2) Board Nominations and (3) Executive Director Performance Management & Succession Planning.

This structure was agreed on by the Board just over 2 years ago, at a point when we were at the onset of formalizing the Board’s governance role. Today, the Board is Chaired by Barry Colbert, Director of Laurier’s Centre for Business & Sustainability, I am a member, as are 9 other leaders from all sectors of our community. It’s a group I’m very proud to have guiding the direction of this organization.

Early last year, we completed a group Board self-assessment and last September our Nominations committee – led by Jan Varner, CEO at the United Way of Kitchener-Waterloo and Area – brought findings back to the group.

In short, Jan’s question to the group was ‘how can we be more effective collectively’? While the organization was in the midst of doubling its capacity, how can we ensure that this group is still using its limited time together to have the most impactful conversations and making the key strategic decisions to guide Sustainable Waterloo Region successfully? We agreed that while an overhaul to our model wasn’t needed, some tweaks likely were. Should we meet more often? Have more subcommittees? Change the agenda formats? All options were on the table, and I was thrilled that a new Board member – Diane Stanley-Horn (fellow Laurier grad & co-founder of RCI Pledging Partner Athena Software) – volunteered to investigate and report back to the Board.

Diane put in an incredible amount of work over the course of four months: she met with every Board member to get more confidential 1:1 feedback on the Board’s effectiveness, she and I met several times as she began to shape her recommendations, and she dove into NPO governance research to ensure we were following best practices. At one point, she was even questioned by Barry on why she was still diligently following-up on meetings with Board members while on a business trip in Australia.

The outcome of these conversations was a series of eight recommendations to tweak our governance model. They ranged from the obvious and simple to the creative and ambitious. Some examples include:

  • Board executive members should not also be chairing subcommittees, meaning that our Board Treasurer shouldn’t also be expected to lead the Strategic Planning subcommittee, as had previously been the case.
  • Enhancing our new Board member orientation and support process, including the assigning of Board mentors to new Board members, and inclusion of more historical SWR scenarios from the past 4 years to help exemplify and bring our governance documentation to life.
  • Reviewing expectations and discussing an increased level of engagement with our advisory board, with the goal of more effectively leveraging the insights of this influential group of SWR supporters.
  • A new optional “Board Breakout” to advise staff on strategic challenges related to existing initiatives, via more free-flowing, focused quarterly conversations with SWR staff (one month before our more formal Board meetings).

All eight recommendations were approved unanimously by the Board, and I’m now working with our team and relevant subcommittees to implement the recommendations. And what does this mean for Sustainable Waterloo Region’s ability to handle the growth we’re experiencing?

Let me use this “Board Breakout” as an example. While we do have a Strategic Planning subcommittee, these Board members’ focus is on assessing and recommending new initiatives and partnerships for the Board to consider. One example is our recent agreement to support the coordination of the Region of Waterloo’s TravelWise program.

But a gap has remained when it comes to strategic challenges of existing programs like the Regional Carbon Initiative – one recent example being a need to provide RCI members with more 1:1 support in light of member feedback. Historically, these challenges have been identified and solved at the staff level, while I report back to the Board on our progress at Board meetings. Going forward, this is exactly the type of challenge that a staff member (in this case, Matthew Day) would be encouraged to prepare a Board Breakout on, leveraging Board members’ insights to ensure we make stronger decisions.

Ultimately, what excites me about the recommendations is two-fold: First, I’m thrilled to have a highly engaged, responsive and committed group of Board members at Sustainable Waterloo Region. These are people like Rick Endrulat (CEO at Virtual Causeway and Board member since December 2009) and Susan Jantzi (Director of Sustainability at Sun Life Financial and Board member since April 2011), who aren’t interested in standing on the sidelines of this organization’s work. They want to be key players. Secondly, I feel very fortunate to be able to count on these experienced, visionary and insightful people to ensure we’re headed in the right direction. I’m very open about the strengths and challenges of having a youthful staff team (I’m 27 and our average age is about the same). While we bring an incredible passion and dedication to our work, we don’t have the experience of a seasoned management team. And so knowing that our 10 Board members are committed to our collective success gives me a tremendous amount of confidence that we can not only handle the growth we’re experiencing, but emerge with an exponentially larger impact as a result.


2 thoughts on “Growth and Governance

  1. Kevin Henry says:

    Thanks for sharing this information about your governance and board-management relations. It’s interesting to understand how a NFP of SWR’s size functions at this level given your board and management compositions and respective strengths. I’d be interested in hearing more about your governance model including the frequency of strategic planning cycle and how the board employs other forms of policy to govern.

  2. Cathy Brothers says:

    Congratulations, Mike on the thoughtful way Sustainable Waterloo Region is approaching Board Governance. I enjoyed your blog. Mostly I’m impressed by the good Board people who are committed to the success of Sustainable Waterloo Region.

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