For this month’s blog post, DIA’s Founding Board President Jeanne LeSage talks with current Board President Alexandra Da Dalt about the past, present, and what’s ahead in DIA’s future.
This is a unique look at how the organization has evolved from the perspective of our Board Members.
Alex: Since you were the Founding President of the Board of the Department of Imaginary Affairs (DIA), I am curious about the changes you’ve seen since the organization started. I’ve been involved since the beginning, but as a volunteer, so I’m curious about the differences in our experiences and our visions for the future.
Jeanne: I think this was a case where, pertaining to the board lifecycle stuff, it made good sense for somebody with experience like me to come on at the beginning. Although it’s kind of funny — I sometimes bristle at the title of Board President. Our founders were the visionaries in terms of the mission and operations. We as a board, (and me as “President) are not the authors of that vision, but our founders are. But for nonprofit governance we needed a board to support this vision. It made sense for me to join to help with the start-up, and to help out the newly incorporated non-profit become an organization. Where boards can help is working with leadership to make sure there’s a clear direction in place. The org has a mission and vision, and then everything should waterfall down from there. Your mission and vision are your guiding star, then you have your values. Then your strategic priorities for the near future, and then all the tactics of how we do it. From broad to specific, but all aligned. The tactics could be your marketing plan, your fundraising plan, program plan, and this is where there needs to be a board plan and people plans that match those strategies.
Where boards can help is working with leadership to make sure there’s a clear direction in place. The org has a mission and vision, and then everything should waterfall down from there.”
So, what do we need the board to be doing? Will we be just governance/advisor/working? And what’s needed with a startup? What is the board composition that’s needed? And then because our programming expanded VERY rapidly, there were many operational ducks to get in order. I can be the voice in the room that is helping to coordinate and helping to organize, but counter to that needs to be the big, hairy, audacious goals and ideas. Shaping the goals of the organization is not exclusively led by say, a fast and efficient meeting. But the point is having some structure around the big, the big, yummy idea and the big, amazing, audacious mission, if that makes any sense. Then we got the bigger IRCC (Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada) project and that, frankly, changed the organization overnight.
Alex: I was going to ask you what that was like to be on the founding board, which was also smaller in numbers than our board now. To be on that starting roster and then have something as big as the IRCC grant happen overnight. What was that like for you?
Jeanne: I would love to ask Jenn the same question, too. This is where I go back and forth is, what decisions SHOULD the board be making? This is a struggle that I see and ask myself about all the time, which is, the non-profit fiduciary governance is such that we are, in theory, the stewards and we are governing. But we’re volunteers, and we’re not necessarily subject matter experts or even sector experts. But we’re supposed to be making these decisions, right? For me, when that came up, it is very exciting. However, my first concern was, “how are we going to ramp this up operationally?” Sometimes there’s boards that are very procedural, very formal, because they need to be because of the size because of the complexity because of the accountability requirements to supporters. And then I have been on other boards where it is a little bit looser, and that’s okay for the needs of THAT organization (as long as we’re still hitting our fiduciary tasks). But this was a scale up that this org had never seen. It does make one wonder, “How do you handle that kind of accordion scale up so quickly?”. But it was a great opportunity, and sometimes you need to just be brave and leap and do it.
Alex: Yeah. Super interesting; so much happened over your three-year term.
Jeanne: I try to be really clear about boards and decision making. If I’m asked a question by leadership, am I going to give you an answer as a board member, or am I going to give you an answer as Jeanne, who maybe can help with some expertise and knowledge? New orgs (especially small ones) can spend a lot of time thinking, “What needs to come forward with approval to the board? Or what can we go ahead with on our own?” To be honest, to me, there’s no right answer, but every board needs to set this out clearly – who is making decisions. It has to be right for the organization and it needs to be clear. Boards shouldn’t be too involved in the day to day (unless it’s a working board), but we’ve seen the other case where boards are not paying attention, particularly with finances, and they are liable. You need to figure out what your org needs, say it out loud — and then be clear about it, and then do it. On the other hand, you’ve assembled a board with amazing perspectives and experiences – so draw on them on an advisory level, but separate that out from required fiduciary decision making.
Alex: Yeah, for sure. It’s really interesting. The last AGM, when I was sworn in, was May 2020. It wasn’t much longer after that Blair decided to step down. I went from being a lot more hands-off to feeling quite a bit more involved in the day-to-day. I have enjoyed it and it has been really good for my learning. I also am thinking quite a bit about that transition afterwards, of backing away a little bit to make sure that the organization does have really clear boundaries about what the board is best suited to assist with, although I know we’re not near there yet. There’s so much transition still ongoing and Jenn has been unbelievable during this time. But yes, it’s interesting defining those boundaries.
Jeanne: Yes. And can I ask you, why was it interesting you to join the board? And why did you say yes to step up to the role of “El Presidente”?
Alex: I think I’m going to formally change the title of this role to “El Presidente.” When I started as a volunteer, I remember that first workshop at York Woods library. I was so blown away by how innovative the work was. I thought, “This is filling a gap in a way that’s really different, and in a way that is really personally touching to me.” I was hooked and thought, “I need to stay involved with this organization,” but had never really considered a governance role. It didn’t even come into my brain. I just figured I would volunteer for as long as they’d have me.
I was hooked and thought, “I need to stay involved with this organization.”
When I was asked to join the board, I think my first inclination was to say, “I’m not so sure I’m the right fit.” It was just that classic wanting to downplay my capabilities or myself. But I thought about the way that that Jenn and Blair led and the way the organization functioned, and I also looked at the composition of the board. At that time, I believe, you were bringing on new board members — educators, designers, and other people who were really connected to the work. I understood that the board wasn’t this antiquated idea of a board that I had in my head, which was only extremely fancy people (because I feel like I’m not so fancy). I saw how this board was a puzzle of different skills and experiences that people could bring to the table. And I said, “You know what, I’ll give it a shot. If they think that I would bring enough to the table that they would ask, then I trust them enough to give it a shot.”
When I was asked to be the President, I’d been to meetings and felt more comfortable. Honestly, I was very inspired by you. I knew these were huge shoes to fill and I was intimidated and nervous. But I was also very comforted by the fact that I knew that you would be there to guide me for the first little bit, and that I wanted to develop skills that I saw in you. I knew this was something that would be a really good thing for me to take on. I’m bringing knowledge as a previous volunteer and someone who has a little bit of a different perspective on the organization. I felt like it was going to be a journey to grow with the DIA, as well. I understood that the foundations were very strong, and that it was heading into a new period of growth. I was excited to get in there and grow with it, if that makes sense.
Jeanne: Yes, absolutely. Well, this is going to be like a mutual admiration club, because I think you’re the perfect fit when talking about the organizational lifecycle. Again, some of the systems we put in place, once it’s there, it should then fade into the background. Using a theatre analogy — when there’s really good lighting design, you often don’t know that it’s there. It is just beautiful, and it blends in and supports. And you only notice it if there’s an issue. In the early days of DIA, the focus is administrative- and numbers-heavy. Now, that should still be there, and we should tend to it, but it needs to fade a little into the background. I like to say the numbers can set you free! You stay on top of the numbers to let you make decisions and support your goals. I think I said this in one of those last meetings, but in small organizations, even having the capacity to do that baseline administration and operations ain’t no joke, right? It’s a lot of work of time and capacity to do that base level. But again, you do that to serve the goals.
And going back to what you were saying about your first impulse when you were a volunteer for DIA. In our world, we see different motivations for volunteers, donors, and board members. I think it’s important to understand the motivations of why people volunteer, because they’re giving their time, their expertise, and their energy. When you talk about being excited by the mission, my hope is that one doesn’t come into a board meeting and all that excitement is drained out of you because ALL you’re talking about is Robert’s Rules, policy and numbers. And I think that’s where I saw after the first few years, it’s actually time for me to step back, because we’re okay, we’ve set up a structure, we’ve got some things rolling, time for a different focus.
It also goes back to, if you have X amount of time with your board members (whether that’s hours, their brain, their expertise, or their love for the organization), how do you want them spending that time? How do you remain really mindful of making sure that, if you have 20 hours of this person’s time, let’s make 6 hour of it board meetings, 4 hours getting them out in front of other people, and another 4 hours doing one on one with staff and being really mindful of that. So, a big part of that is understanding why people are super excited — that’s where I feel your leadership is going to come forward in that mission-driven side of it. And it’s not that it wasn’t important to me, as it’s a fundamental piece. But my priorities to help leadership get the foundational piece done, help get the organization incorporated. And now I think what’s interesting is, at this time, for the new leadership to be really mission- and vision- focused. What do you think about that?
“…My priorities were to help leadership get the foundational piece done, help get the organization incorporated. And now I think what’s interesting is, at this time, for the new leadership to be really mission- and vision- focused.”
Alex: I think that’s very accurate. And I think it’s incredible the way that your leadership set up the organization in so many ways. It’s that amazing lighting, right? We’re now in a place where we can focus more on the mission and vision pieces — for instance, Jenn and I are doing these visioning experiments right now. And part of that is because we’re in a place where we can start thinking so big, because that foundation is laid. And I’m very grateful to you for that.
Jeanne: Oh my gosh, my pleasure. I’m very interested in what’s coming next, succession-wise I saw the list of folks who are joining the board at the upcoming AGM and it made me think about the pipeline. From a succession point of view, yes, you need these folks to do certain things now and hold particular roles. But we’re also thinking about the future and being mindful of who you bring into it. That’s why I also feel like from the point of view of voices, it’s time for me to step away. I’m here to support but it’s really, really important that there be new voices on a number of different levels.
Alex: I’m really looking forward to the new members joining; I think they all bring different kinds of perspectives and views. They are a fascinating group of people! But all these new moves are possible because of those who have come before and contributed their own pieces of the puzzle. Jeanne, thank you — you’re really going to be missed.