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Advisory Boards and Effective Decision-Making in a Complex World

by Kathleen McGuire | Dec 04, 2015

 Photo of Colleen Fleming Colleen Fleming C.Dir., H.R.C.C.C., MBA
President of C.Fleming & Associates Ltd.

Last year, I was very surprised and delighted when a serial entrepreneur approached me to establish and chair an advisory board for a new business he was launching. I was surprised because only 6% of SME’s avail themselves of an advisory board and they typically do so after they have been in business for over a decade.1 I was delighted because I deeply cared about the business he was launching; the Canadian Nonprofit Employer of Choice Awards (NEOC).

It was predicted in 2006 that the nonprofit sector would experience a deficit of leaders. A decade later little progress has been made.2 A related concern for the sector is the lack of talent management and gaps in the skill profile of the labor force. The good news is that people working in the sector are intrinsically motivated and bring great passion and effort to their profession.

Boards in the nonprofit sector are accountable to provide oversight at a time of prolonged fiscal constraint, high C-Suite turnover and employee burnout. The need for transformational organizational change is high in order to achieve the impact the donor rightly expects. It is not surprising that in this environment, boards are facing a challenge to renew and invigorate themselves. This complex environment can overwhelm both boards and management and stymie their efforts to move forward constructively.

The NEOC Award process provides a framework to evaluate the talent management issues and start constructing a corrective plan of action. Board members (many from the private sector) seek data to support their advisory and oversight decisions. The NEOC Awards enable the board and senior staff to probe and analyze the talent management issues and start the transformation.

A unique, but highly valuable, component of the NEOC Awards assessment is that a board assessment is conducted as part of the enterprise evaluation. The board/staff relationship is a critical success factor for the sector. The NEOC board assessment acknowledges that if enterprise transformation is to be accomplished, some change may be needed at the board level as well. This delicate discussion is informed by the anonymous input the board receives from the assessment.

The bottom line is about mission impact

Canada is uniquely defined by our vibrant nonprofit sector—we are a caring nation. Through the NEOC Awards we are forming a national community of like-minded people who are interested in the sustainability of the sector. We are opening the conversation between boards and the executive leadership about the under-investment in talent management. We are providing Board and staff leaders with a road map which will support their journey to better people management and ultimately bigger impact on the mission.

A nonprofit board may choose to use the NEOC Awards on a yearly basis to measure their progress. As the calculation of the results is outsourced and automated, the Awards provide a confidential, cost—efficient and credible evaluation.

The initial voluntary advisory board is comprised of four people. The criterion for the selection was the evidence of deep experience and a commitment to the nonprofit sector combined with recognition as a thought leader in another discipline. The functional skills that we sought on the first round were strategic human resources, national public relations, collaboration and technology skills. The identified individuals agreed to the Terms of Reference and the clear articulation of their role and the expected time commitment. In the future, we will be expanding the committee to ensure that we have NEOC champions across Canada.

The serial entrepreneur has also delighted me because he and his team have been very open to the contribution of the Advisory Committee. The paid staff and the Advisory Committee members are learning and adapting as we enter year two. We are excited to hear stories from our participants on the impact NEOC is making to a sector we all love.

About Colleen Fleming

Colleen is the President of C. Fleming & Associates Ltd. and is both an Alumni and Faculty of The Directors College. She has senior executive experience in two sectors. Her former roles include Senior Vice-President, Nestle Canada and President of Laura Secord. Her nonprofit experience include being the national Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Ms. Fleming is an active volunteer and is currently a director of the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) York, past Chair of Seneca College, current governor Seneca College, chair of the advisory committee for The Nonprofit Employer of Choice Awards. She has served as a Director of the Human Resources Professional Association, Bridgepoint Health Foundation, Chair of Retail Council of Canada. In addition Colleen served as an independent director Van Houtte Inc.


1    Source: BDC Study Advisory Boards. March, 2014.
2    Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review. Oct 22, 2015.


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