The first time I naively said yes to joining the board of directors of a non-profit organization, I was pretty sure I didn't know what I was getting into.
I was right. But in the best possible way.
I got my start on my first volunteer non-profit board of directors fresh out of university. One night, while at an event with friends, I started talking to someone in my group about how much of a literacy skills gap exists among adults – including those in university. That conversation sparked something in me. I'm a prolific reader and if I didn’t have books, I don't know what my childhood would have been like.
So, I began volunteering with an organization I was passionate about which was focused on promoting and developing literacy competency, a decision which helped to change the course of my life. After a few months, I was asked to join their board of directors.
My first reaction was: Oh no. I haven't figured out my life, I barely have a job, and I definitely don't have what it takes to step into a leadership position.
After a long conversation with the board chair, who stressed that the board was looking for passionate people who cared about literacy and wanted the organization to succeed, I accepted the position. And that one decision changed the course of my adult life.
Now, having served on multiple non-profit boards since then, I can say that this form of volunteer work has built up my skill set as a leader, helped me land my current role at TD, and has given me the confidence to know I belong at any table. Board work isn't just for senior leaders; it's for people who are ready to roll up their sleeves for a cause they believe in. That's one of the reasons why we launched the Non-Profit Board Leadership Program for TD colleagues where any TD colleague, regardless of where they are in their career, can learn about the benefits of volunteer board service.
Finding my place around the board table
As I slowly started to build my experience with volunteer board service, I realized that at the time, it was unusual to see Black representation on boards. While many non-profits had diversity among their employees, many continued to be governed by predominantly white board members.
I began to realize that my voice brought a different perspective to the boards I was serving on, that wasn’t being reflected by these organizations because their board of directors didn't have my lived experience.
I was able to bring a different viewpoint to the table and say things like: "If you're going to be working in Caribbean communities, here are some of the things you're going to want to think about, from the food you serve at events to culturally relevant engagement strategies."
This emboldened me, and gave me confidence to believe that, not only was I ready for volunteer board positions, but that when people like me join boards, we can help organizations to better achieve their missions and mandates.
For so long, I operated with a very narrow view about the spaces I belonged in versus the spaces I did not, particularly as a Black woman. I think serving on these boards helped me shed this false narrative and made me realize that I belong at any table and I have valuable contributions to make.
There's this idea that you need a lot of professional experience before joining a board, and while professional experience is of course an asset, each of us also brings the value of our lived experiences. We've all seen things, experienced things, and formed opinions, and that can be highly beneficial to a non-profit organization, especially if you're bringing a perspective they haven't considered before.
Learning through volunteer work
By taking on different board positions as I have progressed in my career, I've not only been able to contribute to non-profit organizations I care about, but I've also opened myself up to new opportunities and life experiences I never would have imagined for myself.
In my first year at TD, I was involved in the TD Ready Commitment arts portfolio. My leader at the time said to me, "you know everyone in the arts sector."
It was only because I'd volunteered at so many places and served on so many boards that my network just expanded. It wasn't something I had expected when I started serving on volunteer non-profit boards.
I had always shied away from the concept of networking. But then I realized networking can mean anything you want it to, and you can do it in ways that feel comfortable to you. Between committees and boards, I was introduced to so many people who became instrumental to my career. I don't think I would be here, at TD, doing a job I genuinely love, without my board experiences.
You never know where volunteer board service is going to take you, and I think if you're genuine, authentic, and passionate about the work, it can only benefit you – and the non-profit organizations you choose to serve.
Along with networking, I've developed as a leader – a skill I bring to work daily. I'm currently the board chair of JAYU, a Toronto-based organization that tells human rights stories through the arts. Under my tenure, the board had to hire a new executive director (executive directors report into boards). The fact that I was able to bring together a strong board that hired the right person built my confidence as a leader.
How to find the right volunteer non-profit board position
Along with JAYU, I sit on the board of Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto's largest non-profit theatre company.
Both boards are different. JAYU is more of a "working board," which means we pitch in to help with all aspects of the organization – including helping with marketing and selling tickets. Soulpepper is much more of a "governance board," where we spend more time thinking big picture about the organization's strategic direction. Both JAYU and Soulpepper Theatre Company are supported by The TD Ready Commitment, the Bank’s corporate citizenship platform.
If you're being considered for a non-profit board position, don't be afraid to ask questions. How often does the board meet? How big is the board? Are there fundraising expectations? What do they do as a board? Does the board meet virtually or in person?
You need to ask questions because all boards work differently, and just like when you're applying for a new job, it's up to you to find the right fit. It's also important to remember that as a board member of a non-profit organization, you're not only bringing your unique experiences to the table; you are also responsible for the organizations' governance, including its fiduciary health. It's important to learn about and understand board governance to contribute to sound decision-making.
For TD colleagues in Canada, the recently launched Non-profit Board Leadership Program, which was designed by Volunteer Ottawa, is a great starting point. A similar program is also available to TD Colleagues in the United States.
Board members should be curious – there's so much to learn from your fellow board members and the many dedicated and knowledgeable individuals working for the non-profit you support.
Many TD colleagues are looking to support non-profits in their communities. In fact, nearly 1,200 people signed up for a webinar to learn about the Non-Profit Board Leadership Program. I am thrilled. We believe the program will help provide useful insights to many individuals and that it has the potential to lead to positive outcomes for many organizations across the country. This is a proud TD moment for me.
At a time when more and more people rely on support from non-profit organizations, good board governance is essential. We need people who are passionate, skilled, and knowledgeable about the basics of volunteer non-profit board service. By offering this type of program to our 95,000 colleagues, we hope to inspire thousands of TD employees to get interested in this type of volunteer work and realize the opportunity it presents to help them grow their skills while helping their communities thrive.