I was asked by the Toronto Arts Foundation to deliver a short presentation on human resources for directors of small not-for-profit and charitable organizations. In January, I opened my news feed to see that the artistic director of a prominent Canadian theatre company was being sued by four actors for sexual harassment and that the theatre company was named in the suits. Suddenly, my presentation on an important but often ignored subject was urgent as well as important.

Directors of not-for-profit organizations and charities need to take immediate action to ensure that their organizations are taking basic but critical steps to prevent misconduct and to provide a safe, professional and welcoming environment for staff and volunteers. Human resources are part of the risk management responsibilities of the board and are no less important than ensuring your financial risks are minimized. Wondering where to start? Here are five things all boards should consider.

  1. Be informed

Directors of not-for-profit organizations are correctly schooled to be mindful of the division of responsibilities between their governance role and the role of staff to manage. This is particularly true in the area of human resources where there is often an intentional barrier intended to maintain confidentiality. However, a Director’s duty of care requires the Board to be informed about all aspects of the organization. By all means, retain the delegation of HR to staff but Directors must remain engaged. Start by increasing the board’s knowledge about human resources.

  1. Ensure board behaviour models desired organizational culture

To ensure the desired culture is supported, take a mission, vision, and values approach by rooting your human resources philosophy in your company’s mission, vision, and values. This helps to ensure the HR practices fit with your organizational culture and are understood by staff, volunteers and board alike.

Mission phrases such as “engenders a supportive community,” “provide the conditions for new work to thrive,” and “allows the company to build a new, cohesive and inclusive world” are foundations on which you can build your human resources philosophy.

Organizational values should be reflected in human resources policies. Are you a learning organization? Are you concerned with social justice issues, diversity, or access? Look to your values when choosing among options for policies and procedures.

  1. Include human resources in risk management

Many charities and not-for-profit organizations have adopted risk management practices by identifying, mitigating and monitoring risks to protect against foreseeable risks. It has become second nature to take this approach with our financial risks. Directors can protect their organizations from risks related to human resources by including HR when identifying potential risks. Common situations are working with a large number of volunteers or being overly reliant on a single staff person for a critical role.

When assessing risks, questions need to be asked to determine whether their organization is responsive and ready to deal with a prospective HR crisis. Directors are responsible for strategy, so a key question Boards should ask is whether the HR budget is adequate to meet strategic goals. Directors should also ensure their organizations are compliant with labour, health and safety, and employment legislation. Risk management also requires Boards to monitor identified risks and the plans and practices to minimize those risks.

  1. Partner with senior leadership

The Board’s role here is one of partnership with their senior leadership and not to usurp management’s responsibilities. Work with your senior leaders to elevate the importance of human resources practices in organizational culture. Including clear, measurable, and relevant performance human resources objectives in performance metrics communicates to the entire organization that HR is valued at the Board level. Once those metrics are in place, it is an easy matter to include regular HR reports as part of your Board packages.

Boards may wish to strike a human resources committee to support the executive director in her functions, to set compensation for the most senior staff person, to develop a compensation philosophy for the entire organization, to oversee HR policies and practices and to ensure all policies and procedures are comprehensive, current and clear.

  1. Increase human resources capacity

Small and medium-sized charities and not-for-profits can make big improvements without having big budgets. Take advantage of learning opportunities and resources online or through professional and trade associations and foundations serving your sector. Many high-quality resources are available from organizations such as Chartered Professional Accountants Canada, HRCouncil.ca / Community Foundations of Canada and the Ontario Non-Profit Network.

Consider pooling resources with other organizations to contract for specific HR expertise such as sharing one big project among several organizations (compensation and pay equity reports for example.) For ongoing needs, consider sharing one HR professional among a group of organizations through a shared services framework agreement.

There is no magic bullet that can prevent your charity or not-for-profit from allegations of misconduct. But there is a lot you can do to improve your organization’s HR culture and practices. Directors that make the effort, pay attention and take the time now will minimize the potential for serious problems in the future.

Is your organization experiencing a human resources crisis? I recommend reading my colleague Gail Picco’s Five Things To Do If Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Occur In Your Charity as a first step in managing your situation.


Lucy White is an entrepreneurial and highly effective senior executive in the not-for-profit sector, Lucy has a demonstrated ability to establish, grow and sustain organizations. She achieves superior results through a strategic, creative and consultative approach and outstanding analytical, communications, relationship management and team building skills.

For more information, please contact Lucy at lwhite@www.osborne-group.com