There are three non-profit societies directly connected to VIU, funded in part by student fees, and actively involved with students: Radio Malaspina Society (RMS) for CHLY Radio; the Vancouver Island University Students’ Union (VIUSU); and The Navigator Newspaper Society (NNS), responsible for the editorial direction and publication of VIU’s bi-weekly student newspaper. As recipients of student funding, their mandates include striving for the betterment of student life and expression, and providing access to media.
The work they do takes funding, staff, resources, and frameworks. Non-profit societies are critical in our communities because they take on the kind of work that for-profit businesses often find unprofitable. Enter the non-profit board of directors. They’re the ones who drive the ship and keep it on track, meeting their mandate and serving their members in a transparent way.
“It’s a privilege to be on the board of a non-profit,” says Jesse Woodward, RMS Acting President. “You’re doing good work—not so much for the financial reward, but the other kinds of rewards you get from being part of an organization.”
Kelly Whiteside serves on the RMS Board as well as VIUSU. “Non-profits are about doing things for the community rather than the money. They do things because that’s what they want to do. I admire that,” she says. “I like helping out wherever I can. I like knowing that I’m making a difference wherever I am, and that what I’m doing actually matters.”
Ben Chessor, new President of the Board of Directors for NNS says, “I’m really thrilled to be President. As an alumni and former editor of The Nav, I joined the Board because I wanted to give something back to the organization that gave me so much. I wanted to make sure I did my part to keep something which contributed a great amount to my own personal growth, so that others could get the same benefits that I did.” He’s also excited to bring his front line experience at The Nav behind the scenes, and learn more about the inner workings. “You really have no idea how much behind-the-scenes work really goes into an organization like this one.” He looks forward to using his experience to “pay it forward,” while learning valuable skills for his professional life.
Non-profit societies are tasked with the challenge of recruiting people who will be a good fit. “It’s really important that a board is actively looking for members (students or others) to be on their board,” Woodward says. “You don’t want to have just anybody show up. You want to ensure that you have people who can actively contribute to your board.” Ideally, members will have skill sets that enhance the board’s work. But in the absence of particular skills, energy, desire, and enthusiasm can go a long way, he says.
VIU’s non-profit societies each require a majority of current students (as opposed to alumni, faculty, or community members) make up their Boards of Directors. The spirit of these requirements is to safeguard the nature of these organizations as “student-led.” This is a challenge where there aren’t enough students stepping forward to fill the positions to satisfy those requirements. The student population tends to be transient, and Board vacancies are common. Without ongoing recruitment activity, and a pool of members to draw on for Board service, a society can be forced to operate without enough student representation, in contravention of its own bylaws, which is a violation of the BC Societies Act which governs the rights and responsibilities of non-profits.
“It’s incredibly important for those who are members of an organization to ensure that they’re electing a board that will work for the society…they have to have the organization’s best interests at heart,” Woodward says. A strong board of directors with expertise in a variety of areas will keep the society’s mission statement in mind while guiding their actions and planning activities. “The expertise made available through a strategically-created board is invaluable to provide direction and support to management and strengthen an organization,” says Kim Smythe, Executive Director for the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce.
There are many benefits that can draw members to non-profit board work. As a Director-at-Large with VIUSU, Whiteside says, “Since becoming a Board member, I’ve become aware of all the amazing things the Students’ Union does, such as advocacy and services, and I’ve experienced a more fulfilling social life by volunteering at events and talking with other students. As a Board member, I’m a leader at the university; I’m the one that people go to when they need help or when they want to know what’s going on around campus. I have the privilege of making important decisions that impact students’ lives. And most of all, I enjoy what I do.” Opportunities to network and boost their resumés by learning new skills also help board members find jobs, says Sandeep Chauhan, RMS Member-at-Large.
Board members often choose to serve because they have a vision for the organization and wish to be part of implementing it. “CHLY is VIU’s radio station, but I feel like it’s currently more community-run and community-oriented, which makes sense since it’s broadcast to the public,” Whiteside says. “But, as a student, I’d like to make it a little more student-focused.”
Chauhan, also a former NNS Board member, says that the society’s membership and Board haven’t always been very active. Chessor saw that the NNS Board needed strengthening, and wanted to be part of the solution: “A lot of issues need to be addressed so that everything can continue to run smoothly on the front lines.”
Implementing these visions can be easier said than done. A president with a strong understanding of where the society wants to go is essential, Chauhan says. “To have an active board, you have to have an active membership.”
While board members provide ideas and leadership, they rely on the general membership for additional volunteer assistance in committee work or during events and fundraising. Sometimes, activating that membership can require brutal honesty if the situation is dire, he says, but a personal investment in the future wellbeing of the society can be a good motivator.
Societies are living organisms, and their boards need care and feeding like any other human-driven aspect of business. Healthy boards nurture healthy memberships, and vice versa. Unfortunately, their reliance on volunteers, often well-meaning, but not necessarily well-equipped with the time or skills to complete tasks, makes societies vulnerable. Maintenance of a society’s Constitution and Bylaws is the cornerstone of the board’s work; everything flows from those documents.
“Bylaws are important,” Chauhan says. “I’ve seen what happens when a board and its staff haven’t followed policy and bylaws—have run roughshod over those policies—and what happens is, if you don’t follow these things, eventually they just fall away.” He equates the resulting lack of board cohesion with the Wild West. “I’ve seen consequences for a new board coming in without guidance, how difficult that can be.”
There can be a tendency to exempt board members from the kind of scrutiny or standards that “real workers” would be expected to uphold. The consequences for their actions, or inaction, can be heavy for the society and its membership. A board can, collectively, even choose go to sleep for the entire year between their annual general meetings. Unless someone happens to wake them up, the organization’s staff are often left to fend for themselves, fulfilling their duties as best they can without any direction or oversight. This is not uncommon in the non-profit world, and can prove to be disastrous for an organization, ultimately causing its downfall. “Every non-profit society has its issues. It’s up to its members to deal with it,” Chauhan says.
Two years ago, the RMS underwent significant change. The Board at the time wasn’t meeting its mandate to the satisfaction of many of its members, and the society’s financial position was suffering. After a well-attended annual general meeting, a new Board of Directors was brought in, and the situation is getting back on track with CHLY focused on producing radio programming. Under the direction of an energized and engaged Board of Directors, the financial picture has improved and plans are being made. Those plans include improving operations and putting safeguards in place, through the society’s bylaws, to prevent similar breakdowns in the future.
“We’re coming in to a really exciting time at RMS because there’s so much potential for that positive change,” Chauhan says. “There are four new students on the Board that seem really gung-ho to learn. When they learn, I learn new things too, so I’m really excited for that.”
There can also be a deeper satisfaction in non-profit work, Chauhan says. “Part of it is about trying to find your tribe or your place to belong. It gives you a sense of place, of trying to get some kind of work done—be it participating in governance or critiquing something—all of these things are about trying to find your place in the world, and trying to find your footing.”
The Boards for NNS and RMS are still seeking additional student members. The work is rewarding, but it is work.
Non-profit societies do many different kinds of work—there’s virtually no sector that doesn’t include non-profit societies:
Nanaimo is home to over 200 associations and non-profit societies, including the Association for BC Arts Councils, the Association des Francophones de Nanaimo, and the Autism Society of BC. Further down the alphabet there’s a myriad of others, including Boys & Girls Clubs of Nanaimo, Cedar Community Hall, Habitat for Humanity Nanaimo Society, Kwumut Lelum Child and Family Services Society, Loaves & Fishes Community Food Bank, Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, Heart and Stroke Foundation of BC & Yukon, Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society, Nanaimo Community Kitchens Society, Nanaimo Unique Kids Association, Nanaimo Youth Services Association, Supporting Employment Transitions, Tillicum Haus Society, Volunteer Nanaimo, Haven Society, and Options for Sexual Health. Building houses, caring for the vulnerable, feeding the poor, building better business—these are just a handful of the kinds of work that non-profit societies take on.
Non-profit governance 101
A typical board of directors includes a President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary, with other Member-at-Large positions to make up a maximum number of directors.
The BC Societies Act requires a copy of each society’s Constitution and Bylaws for its files. These documents outline the mandate or purpose of the society; the requirements for board makeup, membership, and management; procedures for meetings and elections; provisions to report to members on the activity of the board and its record keeping; rights, responsibilities, and duties of the Executive Director (ED); and other elements dictated by the needs of the society.
The board of directors refers to its mandate when developing action items that are executed by committees and/or paid staff. The ED typically manages the execution of the organization’s work. This person will fill positions that have been created, approved by, and budgeted for, by the board; and is responsible for managing staff in their execution of their job descriptions. The board typically avoids direct contact with staff, relying on their ED liaison to receive reports from, and resolve issues, as necessary.