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Author: Margie Carlson, Inter Faith Homes Group    Original Post Date: October 1, 2019

Transforming the sector starts with the board and mission of every organization

Canada has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. We are not the first country to go through the expiry of long-term government operating agreements for the community housing sector – in fact, we are one of the last wealthy countries to do so. I have worked at every level of housing in Canada and have worked with colleagues around the world. What I learned internationally was that the end of government operating agreements did not spell the end of the community housing sector; rather, it was the rebirth of a sector that needed to make changes and ensure its survival in the future.

After several years of supporting others in this work, I was tired of talking about transformation and wanted to go do it, which is why I joined Inter Faith Homes – a “large” non-profit with 576 units in 5 Ontario cities. I quickly discovered that having a staff team grappling with transformation is important, but ultimately is not good enough. At the end of the day, the people who make a lot of the decisions are the board. If you don’t have the right board, you’ll never transform. In order for a legacy community housing sector to get to the new world you have to have a board of the future, not the past.

The board of the past may have a sense of what they signed up for in the beginning, but it is not what they are seeing today. There are new demands – more rules, more legislation, new technology, a requirement for more energy efficient buildings and a sophistication that didn’t need to be there 35-40 years ago.  They often want to talk about what they lost or the way they think things should be rather than where they are and where they want to go. Are you sitting on a board of the past? Or are you dealing with a board of the past? There is a way to the future and it either involves changing mindset or taking a step back to let others take your place.

Smart organizations in the sector have figured out that you need a skills-based board. You need best-in-class governance.  You need the heart of a charity with the mind of an entrepreneur and you need people who can oversee the organization in the same way shareholders oversee private sector boards. You are running a business that has significant assets attached to it and you need the competencies to manage that: you need lawyers, you need human resources professionals, you need developers, and you need people who understand real estate finance. At a lot of non-profits, people join the board because they want to help, so they are there for the right reasons. Often that was good enough in the past, but it is not the same for the future.

I learned from organizations that went through this type of transformation internationally – the situation of having to stare their future in the face – that mission is what mattered, but that you couldn’t get to the mission unless you had the solid feet of business underneath you.  In some cases, the mission became, “What does government tell us to do?”, but that is incredibly limiting. Our sector needs to be much more resilient than that.  It has to learn to operate outside of government edicts and it will always operate longer than a political term. You have to look at the mission through the eyes of business.  How do I get to the mission with a business mindset?  Once you have that in place it gives you the freedom to act. Whether your mission is helping people with mental health issues or building communities or whatever it is, it no longer matters what government does. The ball is in your court now. And then you can tell government what they should be doing and how they can help you meet your goal.

This post was written ahead of the Hamilton Café Pracadémique on Community Housing Sustainability in the context of business transformation and workforce development (originally posted October 1, 2019).