The high price of volunteerism

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My wife didn’t quite know what she was getting into when she accepted a request a few years ago to join the board of directors at the public daycare centre our children attend. By law, the board must have a majority of parents as members, and Heidi, my babies’ mama, was elected its president. We’re both big fans of Quebec’s non-profit daycare system. So when asked, it seemed natural to give a little back to a place that has done so much to care for our children.

Little did Heidi suspect that she was about to step into a hot, steaming pile of political crap that other parents in the know had artfully avoided. Our little daycare, with its bright colours, cheerful educators and hordes of cute kids, was in fact a snake pit of backbiting, rumour-mongering and poisonous labour relations. The executive director and the employees, most of whom had been working there for more than 20 years, could barely look each other in the eye, much less carry on a reasonable conversation.

Heidi knew something was wrong when the executive director grew frustrated that the new board president didn’t accept her orders as if she were a mere underling, as had apparently been the case with previous boards. The executive director evidently didn’t know my wife, much less the proper oversight role of the board of directors. Soon after, the employees launched a unionization drive, won accreditation and entered into negotiations for a founding collective agreement.

It was a rough start, but I was impressed when my wife artfully steered the board to join a daycare association in order to get professional help negotiating with the new union while simultaneously discouraging the director from provoking the new union’s members.

The collective agreement that was eventually negotiated became a positive development for the daycare. It set out in black and white a working relationship that included not only rights but also responsibilities for both employer and employee. Heidi still often found herself as the sounding board for complaints from both sides even as our kids were spending eight or nine hours a day in the centre.

It went from crisis to spat to crisis, until last spring, when the director announced she was retiring. Problem solved, one might think, but the problems had only just begun. Even though she was retiring, the executive director felt she was entitled to a “severance” package worth at least $10,000. She then went about lobbying other members of the board on this point while attacking my wife for opposing the package behind her back.

Thanks to Heidi, the director had already been given a huge raise in her final two years that significantly raised the pension benefits she’d soon be receiving. Partly for this, she felt that this so-called severance package was unnecessary, unwarranted and wasteful for such a small non-profit organization that depends on taxpayer subsidies.

It may not have been a massive sum, but it’s a hugely important point, which illustrates why volunteer board members of non-profits, big and small, are absolutely vital – but must also take their responsibilities very seriously. Take, for instance, the story of one Patrick Brazeau, who, until Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently appointed him to the Senate, was the President of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), a government-funded non-profit organization that was nominally overseen by a volunteer board of directors.

In what has become a seemingly never-ending series of scandals involving Canada’s youngest senator, the Globe and Mail last week reported that Brazeau apparently presided over an orgy of indulgent expense accounting that involved such indispensable items as a big-screen television, first-class air travel, and, once again, a generous severance package for someone who voluntarily left their job, in this case to take on a guaranteed lifetime position as a senator, with its attendant six-figure income funded by the same people who bought him his TV.

As CAP’s national vice-chief, Betty Anne Lavalée said after conducting an investigation into CAP’s finances under Brazeau’s tenure: “This entire situation, quite frankly, makes me ill.”

As well it should. Brazeau, brazenly rewarded by the Conservatives for dependably supporting the Tory government’s anti-Aboriginal agenda, had built his reputation on his unflagging criticism of rival Native organizations’ alleged financial wastefulness. Now, his former organization is in a deep financial crisis because it had wrongly claimed $542,000 as expenses; and this, with an annual federal subsidy of $5 million.

More to the point, however, CAP has a board of directors that is supposed to vet this kind of spending. One should expect that the board be composed of experienced, independent people who care about the goals and integrity of non-profit organizations, and can be depended on to keep it out of trouble because the goals of serving the public interest override private greed.

Harvey Gilmour, an experienced fundraiser for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, has written that non-profit boards “quite often spend little or no time setting out expectations for incoming members, that new members are rarely trained, and that self-evaluation of the board’s performance is infrequent at best, but more often non-existent.”

Partly as a result, Gilmour noted in citing a national survey, many board members feel frustrated by poorly run meetings, the unbalanced distribution of workloads, and the challenges of attracting volunteers and donors to their organizations. Indeed, for most, serving on a non-profit board implies many hours of unpaid and unrecognized work, the satisfaction from which can be lost in the petty politics that often plagues these organizations.

These, among many others, are why I am so immensely proud of my wife for doing the right thing under extreme duress at our daycare centre. During the ongoing controversy over the former director’s demands, Heidi shepherded a search for a new director. She helped to find and hire someone who has won the employees’ trust while identifying an ambitious program of improvements aimed at the constituency that matters the most at the centre: the children. Meanwhile, she managed to play the political game required in order not to waste the precious resources that our daycare centre depends upon.

It may be a largely thankless task. But, for me, the fact that my kids and the people who care for them will not be short changed because someone, in this one small instance, did their duty is worthy of mention – even if it happens to win me some brownie points at home.

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