Shared Governance: The Road to Imagine Canada Standards Accreditation

On June 20, 2013, Propellus (formerly Volunteer Calgary) announced that they had reached a new milestone – they have been accredited by Imagine Canada’s National Standards Program. The Standards Program is a Canada-wide set of shared standards for charities and non-profits designed to demonstrate their compliance in five fundamental areas: board governance; financial accountability and transparency; fundraising; staff management; and volunteer involvement. It helps organizations mitigate risk by ensuring that staff and volunteers understand and meet their legal, financial and fiduciary responsibilities.

“We are an organization that our sector would be looking to as a leader, so I really felt that we needed to demonstrate that leadership by getting this credential,” says President and CEO, Jamie Niessen.

Though Niessen was eager to start the process of accreditation, it was not an easy road to travel and something that would not have been possible without the full support of the Propellus board of directors. “Your board needs to be in. The committees and the governance committee in particular,” says Niessen.

“In our case, the board completely saw the value in pursuing the accreditation. They really saw the value in having our brand associated with a trusted mark.”

Current Board Chair Christopher Dougherty believes that the accreditation was something that Propellus had to try to attain. “As a board, we had already committed to becoming a leader in non-profit governance so that we can be a living example of what our training and consulting programs teach to other organizations. Achieving the Imagine Canada accreditation is a visible way of demonstrating this commitment to the community and our members.” With the backing of the board and the leadership team, Niessen project managed the journey to accreditation, but the project was a team effort all the way from the board to the staff.

“What I am really proud of is that it was a shared governance process,” says Niessen.

“I identified the opportunity, the board authorized it, and then I did legwork with the support of the team internally. We then worked on a pretty rigorous schedule to bring new policy ideas and procedures forward to the respective committees that would own that work.” It was that schedule that would provide Niessen and the board with one of the biggest challenges of the accreditation process. “Timing was the biggest challenge,” says Dougherty. “The whole process of re-aligning the work of each committee and the board partway through the year, making sure that we did the best policy work possible in a way that was consistent with good governance, and doing it all in the couple of months we had before the submission deadline.” As an organization, Propellus was already 75 per cent compliant with the standards, but that didn’t mean that Niessen and the board didn’t have a lot of work ahead of them.

“I think I underestimated how much work it would actually be, but it absolutely has made us a better organization,” says Niessen.

“I don’t think I appreciated how much I would actually feel the growth while going through the process. It wasn’t just about clearing the hurdle it was actually learning how to clear the hurdle. So that is where the learning and the value is. It’s not just the checkmark and getting the logo; it’s the learning and the changes that happen to earn it.” Both Niessen and Dougherty highly recommend for any organization to start working towards the standards accreditation; however Niessen suggests that organizations take their time, rather than rush through the process like Propellus did. “Do it,” says Dougherty. “Even if it is a stretch goal to achieve the standards, start working on them. The work leads to better policies, better governance, and a stronger organization.”

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