Here is an excerpt from a speech recently given by Helen Burstyn, Chairperson of the Ontario Trillium Foundation on the importance of ethical, accountable governance.
Challenge 1: Ethical, Accountable Governance
I imagine that this challenge more than any other has attracted people to this conference today. Ethics, accountability and good governance are not just about being able to distinguish right from wrong or good from bad. They are about establishing policies, processes and structures that encourage the right choices.
Because of some very high-profile failures in this realm, we have seen corporations and even a couple of newsworthy provincial entities land in hot water due to a conspicuous lack of ethical and accountable governance.
While many organizations react when they have no choice, I commend our friends in Ontario’s hospitals for getting ahead of the damning headline and paying attention to good ethical, accountable governance.
But even organizations with apparently sound governance and decision-making processes are re-evaluating their accountability mechanisms. They don’t want to fall behind and the “accountability gap” because once they do, you’re playing a catch-up game, and that’s not where you want to be.
If your organization has so far avoided doing an accountability audit and a governance review, think about the decisions you make currently. Would the processes you use and the results you achieve stand up to public scrutiny in this heightened accountability environment?
We all work for the public good and that brings with it privileges, such as charitable status and government funding. When we avail ourselves of those privileges, we assume a degree of accountability that is extremely high.
The level of transparency and ethical rigor needed to achieve that standard depends on the daily decisions made not only by our staff, but by our volunteers. As leaders and hopefully as the ethical role models of our organizations, we cannot be present for every decision, but we can put in place measures that support sound decision-making.
These may be small, everyday measures – such as taking a cautious approach to expense and budget management … a real hallmark of the way OTF does its business, by the way.
On the larger tactical front, the OTF board conducted a governance overhaul in 2005 that helped us achieve what I would certainly call “good governance,” but also gave the board both the time and the tools to focus on broader issues of accountability and ethics. And that level is where boards should function.
The process confirmed for us that, while the core business of the foundation is grant-making, our chief responsibility as a board is governance. The foundation’s board, perhaps ironically, has very little to do with the handling of grants. That may seem counterintuitive, but you would never expect the board of Tim Horton’s to brew your coffee.
Freed up by that realization, my board colleagues and I committed to making governance the focus of our meeting agendas. We delegated most of the grant approvals to our CEO, who is now authorized to approve 80% of our total granting. Now, instead of receiving a two-page brief on every one of our 1,500 grants, the board receives a Grants Summary Report at the end of each granting cycle. This report focuses on the accountability numbers, trends, policy considerations, and potential concerns. This allows us, as a board, to take the broader strategic view we should have. We need to be steering the boat, not rowing it.
We made other governance-enhancing changes, including streamlining our committee structure and revising and sharpening our volunteer job descriptions.
These changes have not been easy – what change is? The results have been good, but good is not enough. We consider ourselves a work in progress, always.”
You can read the speech at http://www.trilliumfoundation.org/cms/en/sp_challenges.aspx
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Mark Blumberg is a partner at the law firm of Blumberg Segal LLP in Toronto and works almost exclusively in the areas of non-profit and charity law.