Like so many Canadians, Sarah Saso's life has been affected by breast cancer; she lost her best friend to the disease. Afterward, her friend's widower asked Ms. Saso if she would sit on the board of directors of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, a position her late friend had held.
Ms. Saso, the executive director of the Green Shield Canada Foundation, didn't have to think twice – but she knew she could use some help understanding exactly what it means to join the board of a charitable organization, and all the responsibility it entails.
She turned to Altruvest Charitable Services, which trains managers and professionals from the for-profit sector to serve on charitable boards through its BoardMatch programs.
Before signing up for a three-year term with Willow's board of directors, Ms. Saso attended the BoardMatch Leaders course, a two-day intensive program that covers all aspects of volunteer board membership, from fiduciary duties and risk management to strategic planning and staff relations.
"It was clear to me I was ready to be on a board, and what I loved about the course was it helped me understand the role I wanted to play," says Ms. Saso, noting that she wanted to focus on marketing and communications rather than fundraising, a task that commonly falls on board members.
"A lot of people want to be on a board but really don't fully understand the scope. Often, corporations and non-profits speak different languages. This [course]helps you understand the breadth and scope of being on a board; the corporate governance that's required, the risk mediation, the responsibility you have. It helps you be very clear about what you want to do and how you want to do it."
Altruvest also runs BoardMatch Fundamentals, a service that connects professionals with boards that align with their background, expertise and interests, acting as a kind of executive search engine. Since its inception in 2002, BoardMatch has placed more than 2,400 people on the boards of 650 charitable and non-profit organizations.
According to Altruvest, more than 1 million Canadian volunteers serve on boards, with a turnover of at least 25 per cent annually. Many volunteers have little or no training, and many lack a basic understanding of the charitable sector.
BoardMatch chief executive officer Robert Harris notes that would-be board members are motivated by a variety of issues.
"There may be some factor in their life that leads them to want to give back," explains Mr. Harris. "Then there's the practical side – how joining boards helps people to advance their careers by creating a brand new network."
The result is a win-win situation: boards gain professional direction, and business leaders acquire personal and professional experience.
"By being on a board, you're able to network with people you would not normally associate with, and the quality of that networking is sky-high," says Mr. Harris. In addition, volunteers give of their time "without any compensation," which adds a touch of authenticity that can deepen these relationships.
"Quite a few studies indicate that those who volunteer develop better leadership skills because they need to work with people by influencing, rather than simply commanding or directing," he adds. "That makes them better managers in whatever sector they're working in."
The demand for BoardMatch's services is likely to increase as more companies seek ways to develop their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies.
Such initiatives are increasingly important to younger generations, says Mr. Harris, pointing to a study by the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education that looked at MBA students' attitudes. The survey found that in 2007, 26 per cent of MBA students expressed interest in work that offered the potential to make a contribution to society, compared with 15 per cent in 2002.
The leadership aspect is also driving the interconnection between CSR and staff management, adds Mr. Harris, noting that in their book The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner say that creating "affection" in a team is one of the more difficult challenges for managers, because it requires a certain amount of vulnerability, plus solid support from above.
In short, those who are successful are constantly seeking ways to create emotional bonds within their team – and CSR programs are one powerful way to achieve that goal.
Kevin Stoddart, vice-president of Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, an executive recruitment and consulting firm, says, "Boards tend to attract fairly senior professionals, especially higher-profile boards, and this is one way to access those people," Mr. Stoddart says. "It allows you to add to your network and spend time with individuals that perhaps you wouldn't otherwise spend time with.
"There are professional benefits to be gained through charitable work, but far more important is the cause," he says. "It's personally and professionally rewarding. It opens your mind and allows you to see things from a different perspective.... You grow personally. It changes you as a person."
"Non-profit charitable organizations have so much to give back to the business community; it's not a one-sided relationship," Ms. Saso says. "What we get is a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of speaking, a whole new way of understanding, of developing ourselves, of meeting great people.
"It's easy to be passionate about it because it gives you so much."