Last December, Statistics Canada undertook a crowdsourced survey of non-profit and charity boards in Canada to assess the diversity of individuals serving on those boards. The survey was completed by 8,835 board members. Of those members who responded, 14 per cent identified as being immigrants to Canada; 11 per cent identified as belonging to a visible minority group; eight per cent identified as LGBTQ2+; six per cent identified as persons with a disability; and three per cent identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. It is important to note that the survey was not based on a representative sample because respondents were self-selected; but anyone who works with or serves on non-profit boards wouldn’t be surprised by the lack of diversity highlighted.
The lack of diversity of boards and leadership in non-profit and charitable organizations is not a new issue. In 2009, the Schulich School of Business released a report titled “A Call to Action: Diversity on Canadian Non-for-Profit Boards,” which surveyed 240 organizations that were members of national charitable organization Imagine Canada. They found that while gender equity on boards has progressed considerably, with women holding almost 44 per cent of board seats (Statistics Canada’s survey put that number at 54 per cent), 87.6 per cent of board members of the organizations that responded were white.
As a woman of colour, and a lawyer who works with non-profit organizations, I have had many opportunities to reflect on why this is the case. I have worked with organizations that are focused on ensuring diversity on their board, that take proactive steps and make inclusive policies designed to attract people from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. As a new mother, I struggled with continuing in my role as a volunteer board member despite a wonderfully supportive board and supportive partner (note that despite the strong representation of women on non-profit boards, Statistics Canada does note that the median age of women on boards was 50-54, with 22 per cent over the age of 65).
The reality is that despite the best of intentions, these organizations are rarely as successful as they want to be in achieving diversity — and part of the reason for that is systemic. The statutory requirements for non-profit and charitable governance are rooted in privilege and do not make space for real diversity.
Nature of voluntary boards
Boards of directors are responsible for managing the affairs of a charity or non-profit. Much of this responsibility is delegated to an executive director and staff members, but there are key things that board members remain responsible for — including making sure that as board members, they act in the best interests of the organization, that they provide financial oversight on how money is used, and ensuring, specifically with charities, that money is not used on activities that are not charitable. Board members can also be held personally liable for things like unpaid wages and vacation pay, tax remittances that haven’t been remitted, and some health and safety violations, for example.
Directors on voluntary boards are generally not paid, and with charitable organizations, it is prohibited. There are policy reasons for this, stemming from the principle that directors shouldn’t be profiting from an organization whose monies and activities are meant to be directed to a social purpose.
Why does the nature of voluntary boards hinder diversity?
Being a volunteer board member demands your time and demands that you are accountable to the decisions that the board makes — and it demands these things without compensation. These are legal requirements for the most part. As a result of the pandemic, being a board member also requires computer literacy, access to a computer (or at the very least a smartphone), access to reliable internet, and access to the space needed to carry out board duties in a way that respects obligations around confidentiality.
What isn’t discussed in the conversation around increasing diversity on non-profit and charity boards is how these demands exclude groups who do not occupy a place of privilege. It’s important to ask how these demands impact BIPOC and LGBTQ2 people differently and require them to give more of themselves to fulfill this duty than a person who identifies as white. This is also true of a board member with a precarious socioeconomic situation, who struggles with addictions or mental health issues, for example.
Serving as a board member means that you cannot easily step away from your role for personal reasons. If you remain a board member, you are still responsible and accountable for the decisions of the board. Or you resign. The structure is not there to retain and support people who make a valuable contribution to governance but cannot necessarily give their time and energy to the role consistently through the ups and downs of their lives.
Privilege is ultimately the factor that allows individuals to fulfill the obligations of this role. Without directly addressing how non-profit governance is designed around privilege, there cannot be meaningful progress in ensuring diversity on these boards. This ultimately impacts the communities that are meant to benefit from the activities of these organizations. Often, the representation missing from the board is representation from the stakeholder groups that the organization serves. The missing voices end up being those individuals who could provide important insight and perspective into how an organization can better serve its communities.
Shelina Ali is a lawyer with Iler Campbell LLP where she practices in the areas of corporate law and civil litigation. She assists non-profit organizations and co-operatives on a range of governance and human rights issues.
Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.
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