Organisational Transformation: Some Lessons Learned

I spent six years living and working in South India. My colleagues found it bizarre that I would comment every morning on the beautiful blue skies, and I soon realised that as Canadians we can be obsessed with the weather and changing seasons, whereas for others, seeing a clear blue sky each morning is just normal. I loved living in India, but one thing I missed was the changing seasons. When I moved back to Canada, I valued more than ever the beauty and importance of each season—its temperatures and colours, its precipitation and the environment each season provides for plant growth and different types of outdoor activities.


A New Season

Like the changing seasons, organisations and leaders also change over time. These changes are to be expected and welcomed. If you dislike winter, that doesn’t stop it from happening. It’s best to check your weather app, embrace what’s coming, dress well, and jump in with both feet! This chapter tells the story of organisational transformation at Share the Warmth, and some of the lessons learned over a 10-year period.

I was privileged to work at Share the Warmth (STW) from 2009 to 2019, initially alongside its founder and Executive Director of 22 years, Judy Stevens, and then as Executive Director when Judy retired. Judy led during the early seasons of founding and establishing the organisation. She managed a small staff team and built up a committed team of volunteers and a generous donor base. The organisation was known for its heart and resourcefulness, with Judy embodying both those attributes.

I was totally committed to the people I was working with, and to the organisation. I also get a real buzz out of changing things, and felt STW was ripe for change.

Towards the end of every season in an organisation’s life comes a time of reckoning. Often referred to as a time of organisational transformation, some prefer the term organisational renovation. Arriving with a transformation agenda is not always helpful—this can communicate that what was done in the past is no longer relevant and needs to be done away with. A renovation project, by contrast, affirms the best of the past, and builds on those strengths. Yet, while this sounds good in theory, achieving a balance is not always easy in practice.

Over my 10 years at Share the Warmth, the organisation experienced modest but sustained growth: the number of staff grew seven-fold, which included many part-time employees from the community; and the annual budget grew by 250%, in addition to a $2.2 million building renovation project from 2014 to 2019. This growth meant that Share the Warmth went from being a small non-profit organisation to a medium-sized one that was involved in several key areas of community development: food security, youth, and employment and social enterprise.


Some of the Challenges of organisational transformation

Every leader who undertakes an organisational transformation or renovation process is guided by a set of values. The challenge is to align our aspirational values with our personal values – the values we actually live out and which others see! It is important to constantly evaluate both sets of values and to strive to reduce any inconsistencies between what we hope for, and what really happens.

When I became Executive Director, I already had a clear idea of the ways I believed the organisation needed to change. And these changes were primarily in the following areas:

  • Clarifying the organisation’s objectives, guided by a philosophy of community development, as opposed to a traditional form of charity which I viewed as enabling poverty to continue through Band-Aid solutions, rather than addressing root causes;
  • The importance of data collection and measurable outcomes to evaluate program effectiveness; and
  • A diversified and program-based funding model with intelligent and transparent communications and respectful donor-recipient relationships.

We began to better understand the outcomes of our programs, which led us to conclude that despite our good intentions, some of our programs were not achieving their intended impact, in terms of the social problems they had been set up to solve.

The community we were serving was changing fast. No longer majority low-income and anglophone, it was becoming culturally diverse, majority francophone, and undergoing rapid gentrification, which risked creating social divisions that would surely isolate vulnerable families more than ever. We put in place a number of important changes to better represent the community and connect with its diverse members and their cultures.

To build a solid organisation requires clarity, but, above all, organisational transformation requires good people. We had a small team of committed employees, but we also needed to hire staff with passion and expertise in food security, youth programming, social economy, and program evaluation; people who would not primarily be concerned with maintaining legacy programs, but who were willing to measure how well the organisation was meeting the needs of program participants and the community. In a way, this strategy contributed to the professionalisation of the community sector, which continues to bring both benefits and problems to the sector.


Finding and developing allies for change

A few key board members, donors, and community partners were critical allies at the beginning of the change process.

My relationship with the board chair, whether the person in place at the time I was hired or the two subsequent board chairs I served under, was the most important relationship in terms of seeing through the changes we needed to make. Though we didn’t spend a lot of time together each month, our meetings were always well-planned, efficient, and honest. Board members were committed to the organisation, to learning about issues of poverty and injustice, and to improving how we did things.

We began recruiting board members with specific profiles; people who could bring the skills we lacked. In the early years I was trying to recruit anybody I could think of who had a profile we were missing, but in later years I learned to pull back, so that the board would more fully play its governance role. The board established a nominating committee and by then had developed more of a board development mindset.

I recall having conversations with some of the foundations who supported our work and became allies for change. In addition to developing relationships with our long-time donors, we focused our energy on relationship-building and learning from francophone foundations who were forward thinking and who encouraged organisational innovation.

We invited some community partners to speak at the first annual general meeting when I became Executive Director. One was the coordinator of the local roundtable, a brilliant person from whom we had much to learn. But she couldn’t speak English. We invited her anyway, and over time this became more normal, but initially it was a shock to the organisation’s culture to communicate in franglais, rather than almost exclusively in English. Regretfully, I was so focused on increasing cultural and linguistic diversity during this time that we didn’t do a very good job developing key allies among the English-speaking community, some of whom felt excluded by what appeared to be a francisation of a traditionally English community organisation.


Changes to programming

The organisation had three key program areas: food security, youth and learning, and employment training.


Food security
We had a vast school food program with no government or school funding or official recognition. It operated exclusively on private donations. We began by putting a mandatory feedback process with all participating schools in place, communicating program costs, and requesting feedback on food quality and quantities, as well as waste. We asked participating schools and their school boards to participate in our massive annual fundraising event for the school food program. Through interviews with stakeholders, and the data collected over a number of years, it became clear we had to make difficult decisions about the program’s financial viability, and the program was eventually canceled. However, this decision resulted in new programs being birthed and traditional programs being transformed in such a way that there was a greater focus on food access, skills, and advocacy, as well as greater community participation in programs like community meals and a weekly market. Today, there is an emphasis in society on food sovereignty, and not simply food security. Things will always evolve and improve where there is an openness to positive change.

Youth and learning
Implementing changes to our youth programming had both positive and negative impacts on local children. At the time, the neighborhood had one of the province’s highest high school dropout rates. Our main youth program was a drop-in crafts and games gathering that attracted huge numbers of primary-aged children and some teens, who attended two nights a week. The program functioned largely due to the care and commitment of a single staff member, along with a few volunteers, who launched the informal drop-in program in response to a request from local children who spent their evenings alone in the park.

As safety measures were put in place, which included additional staff, fixed adult-to-children ratios, and a registration process, many English-speaking families stopped sending their children. They weren’t comfortable with registering their children and they didn’t like the added structure and new staff. While many of the original families stopped sending their children, the changes brought new families who were happy to access quality tutoring and music lessons for their children. These children became engaged and stayed for years, and some eventually became music teachers, tutors, and leaders themselves. One young woman eventually became a community worker after attending university, reaching out to needy families in the area with wisdom and understanding based on her own lived experience.

School grades of children and youth in all programs were tracked, with tutoring offered to any who fell behind. Data collected over time helped program staff to predict the subjects and grade levels that would prove most difficult, thereby allowing time to add preventive measures before difficulties arose. Children and youth found a place of belonging, their self-confidence grew, and graduation rates among children participating in the various programs soared.

Employment training through Social economy
Many community organisations offer employment training in conjunction with the provincial government’s social welfare programs. At Share the Warmth there were some training participants who had been there for years. In the early years, participants were mainly missing recent work experience, and once they learned basic work skills they were able to find work. Several of STW’s first staff members came from this program; however, in later years, participants had greater needs, and were much farther from the regular job market, due, in large part, to mental illness and learning disabilities. Once again, it was necessary to hire staff with the experience and training to support participants in developing their capacity to work, while respecting any limitations they might have. All of this was done in the context of running small social economy businesses that raised funds for the organisation—a second-hand store, a community vegetable market, a community café that morphed into community meals, and hall rentals.

A valuable financial model, that undergirded all programs, was a pay-what-you-can model. A fundamental belief was that people value what they pay for. Making a financial contribution for products, programs, and services changes one’s status from a recipient of charity to a participant with agency. Paying a fee gives us the right to expect quality. This is equally as important for those of little means as for those who are wealthier, with both paying according to their ability. The idea was also to welcome those from various economic backgrounds, and avoid the social divisions that often result in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification.


Finding the Money to Make Change Happen

I began working in the community sector at a time when fundraising and philanthropy in Quebec were changing quickly. My predecessor Judy could literally send a one-page letter to funders telling a heart-warming story about a program participant and receive a $25K cheque within days. I didn’t know how to do that, and I still can’t do that. It was also a time when the funding landscape was shifting from organisational mission funding to project-based funding, where funding decisions are made based on project or program objectives, how we would achieve them, and how we would measure the results or impact. I felt positive about that change, but I also felt wholly inadequate for the task.

We learned how to determine real needs, through a collaborative process that included program participants, to collect and present relevant data and to show what could be done to bring about change. Though we experienced growth, the funding pressures never let up. Unless you’re working in an area that receives recurring and significant government grants, this is the reality of working in organisations that depend on donations for the majority of their budget. It’s challenging, and I was almost always stressed about the money.

It was critical to move the organisation to more sustainable and diversified sources of funding. In addition to obtaining more government grants for those programs that provided direct health-related services, we developed social economy projects that both generated revenues and provided employment training for adults who, for various reasons, were far from the labour market. Over several years, we intentionally shifted our sources of funding from over 95% of revenues coming from private donors and fundraising events, down to 60%, with another 25% from government grants (up from about 5%), and 15% of income coming from our social economy projects. In order to have freedom to create and follow their own vision, while creating healthy and respectful relationships with funders, effective non-profits need to develop a healthy diversification of their funding sources.


Paying Decent Salaries

There exists an attitude in some parts of the community sector, which is thankfully disappearing as recruitment becomes more challenging, that people should be willing to work endless hours for low salaries and no benefits. Somehow the satisfaction of knowing your work has a direct impact on the lives of vulnerable people means it’s OK for workers to live near the poverty line. No doubt this comes from the days when most charities were led by well-meaning volunteers whose status was somehow enhanced by the fact that they took no salary. But the world has changed, and all workers deserve a decent salary.

Our board of directors once invited a well-known philanthropist to speak at a board meeting. During her presentation, a board member asked how we could improve the financial health of the organisation in order to be able to pay better salaries and offer pensions and health insurance to the staff. The answer was quick and disappointing. In effect, she said, ‘’Don’t bother; it’s unrealistic and you’ll never be able to do it.’’ Afterwards, I remember saying to our board chair that if we couldn’t afford to provide our staff with decent salaries, pensions, and benefits, we might as well close our doors. The board then put together a committee to find a way forward, and soon afterwards we implemented clear job descriptions, pay scales, pensions, and health benefits. I applaud the board for their commitment to do the right thing, despite what others may have advised them to do.


Who can volunteer?

Volunteerism is a powerful and positive force without which the community sector would be unable to accomplish all it does. However, it has also evolved from the days of traditional charity where many volunteers tended to be those who had the time and financial resources to give to those who were without. This power imbalance was a constant reminder of who was in charge, who had more freedom, and who did not. An important change was mixing up the volunteer teams so that community members and program participants could participate as volunteers, alongside those who came from outside the community to give their time and other resources to the organisation. Program participants who volunteer in organisations have a stake in determining the type and quality of services that are offered, and they contribute skills, wisdom, and lived experience, thereby enhancing the quality and relevance of an organisation’s programs.


Growing pains

Organisational change and growth can be exhilarating. Transformation also takes a toll on those who are often the most impacted—the staff. Towards the end of my tenure at STW, the management and human resources components of the organisation had grown, and some staff struggled with the amount of change. We were at that in-between size where we had more staff and program participants, but we didn’t have a very strong HR function. As organisations grow, staff rightly have more expectations of better HR management to support the change management process. It was a challenge to fund higher salaries and benefits as the organisation grew. It seemed impossible to ensure the infrastructure needed to support that growth.

We had become a medium-sized organisation with small-sized infrastructure. One thing we tried to do early on was to put in place a leadership team to share the management load. Some people really wanted a leadership team so that we could share responsibility. Others were against the idea, because they liked a flatter organization. But the flat organization was no longer working as we grew. Within the management team, we had some high-performing people, while there were others who were insecure. This went on for some time, and was quite counter-productive; however, by the time I left there was a cohesive management team in place that was working quite well.


Leadership and governance

Organizationally, we learned that organizational development has to happen at every level, including at the board level and among donors, community partners, staff, volunteers, and program participants.

While board members were full of good intentions, most had no previous board experience. Many began with a charity approach to community work. So, while they themselves were charitably generous and donated, initially they didn’t feel the need to professionalize a non-profit organization. Nor did they yet share the urgency of putting in place decent salaries and benefits for staff who were seriously underpaid. As mentioned earlier, it was a struggle to put in place a pension plan and health benefits for staff.

Another big lesson I learned was when I took a three-month sabbatical in 2018 and one of our managers replaced me. This was such an important time for me personally to recharge my batteries after 9 years on the job. The person who replaced me was extremely talented yet she almost broke down under the stress of what I left her with. When I returned, she and I went out for lunch and she effectively said, “Fiona, you do too much. You do both your job and the board’s job. It’s not sustainable.”

I thought I’d done such a great job of developing capacity, and of moving our collective mindset from charity to development. Yet her statement, “You do everything” really struck a chord. And it wasn’t the board’s fault. I reflected on how the board had grown over time, from being a bunch of people who showed up every six weeks, to a governance board with multiple sub-committees, annual board-staff retreats, a strategic plan, and an annual evaluation process. Then I looked at all the board sub-committees, and who prepared the agendas for them, who produced the minutes, and who followed up on the action items. It was me. What I thought was increasing board capacity was largely increasing my own workload and contributing to a growing weariness.

This manager, who had replaced me during my sabbatical, helped me so much. After our conversation I said to the board, “I’m not blaming you, this was my fault. We’ve grown so much over the years. I’m doing all the management and I’ve been doing a lot of the governance work as well!” They really took my words seriously and immediately made changes, taking on greater responsibility. I had to learn to step back and respect that they would do things differently than I would. Those were great lessons learned. From then on, when sub-committee chairs didn’t show up to a board meeting at the last last-minute and just assumed I would present their reports, I would politely decline and suggest another committee member take on the task. I really learned that I couldn’t do my management job well and other people’s governance work as well. Some lessons take a while to learn!


Looking back, and looking forward

Looking back, I am satisfied with the organisational changes we implemented, and I feel good about a lot of it. I think there’s also a lot we didn’t get done, and things we could have done better. Succession planning for the Executive Director position was done in a planned and open way with the Board’s Executive Committee. A selection committee was formed, and an excellent choice was made.

We definitely experienced growing pains. I realise now that as we were growing I didn’t have a lot of objectivity. Looking back, the growing pains helped me to learn and grow personally. I also see some of the pain others experienced as a result of change that could have been better managed. I understand my own limitations, and the kind of people I need around me to be effective. That has been very helpful, but I wouldn’t really want to go through it all again! Though of course we do go through a similar process, over and over, with each new challenge we take on.

There is a lot we did that laid a firm foundation for the next season in STW’s organisational life and that helped the organisation become more connected to the neighborhood and more knowledgeable about the social issues we were attempting to solve. We worked with children, youth and families, with schools, and we tried a number of social economy projects. We examined a lot of different approaches, both locally and nationally, and really upped our game in terms of food security. By the time I left, we were covering all our administrative expenses with internally generated revenue, and people were gaining relevant work experience. I think that was important.

So, I look back and I feel positive about the organisation’s transformation process. Towards the end, though, I was worn out. I learned a lot about my own capacity, which I thought was limitless, and I learned that it wasn’t.

While writing this chapter one of my co-writers asked me what I was most proud of from my time at STW. I had talked about how challenging it was, but looking back, what gives me joy?

One of the things I’m proud of, in addition to implementing important programming changes, is that we were also able to renovate our heritage building, at a cost of $2.2 million. This was done over a five-year period, with the tireless involvement of volunteers and partners. This was important not only because the building itself was restored, but because at first it seemed like such an impossible task. We never thought we would be able to fund and complete the work, but in the end it was fully funded thanks to a lot of hard work and generosity—two necessary components of any transformation project.

Several years on, I am currently privileged to serve as Executive Director of Accueil Bonneau, Quebec’s oldest organisation serving people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. I started in this new role the week that Quebec went into lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier professional challenges pale in comparison to those first 18 months at Accueil Bonneau. Once the worst of the pandemic was behind us, we began a rigorous and inclusive strategic planning process, and set some lofty goals for the next season of this nearly 150-year-old Quebec institution’s mission. A new chapter of organisational transformation is now being written by the diverse people—residents, participants, staff, volunteers, board members and community partners—that form the Accueil Bonneau community. A new season of possibilities has begun…

Discussion question:
Having read Fiona’s story about large-scale change in an organization in terms of human resources, budget, governance, reach, organisational culture, and structure, what resonates for you? Does it remind you of experiences that you’ve been through, and are there things that you might want to dig into a bit more?

Fiona Crossling

Fiona Crossling

Executive Director, Accueil Bonneau