Let your light shine

Maytree Opinion, October 2012

By Alan Broadbent

How many of us hide our light under a bushel?

As the old saying has it, many of us hide our light, rather than raise it on a candlestick for all to see. We hold to ourselves the valuable learning we have, rather than exchange it with other people who might benefit from it, and who might have learning to share with us.

In recent years, many organizations have been focusing on the knowledge they have developed and accumulated over the years, often being surprised by how much they actually know. And once they have discovered that, they have become interested in sharing that knowledge with others. The value of this sharing is immense: it shortens the start-up time for people wanting to do similar work; it equally shares successes and failures, so helps others avoid failing approaches; it strengthens the narrative of how to deal with issues and problems, which raises general awareness and support; and it inspires people to take on big problems with confidence that solutions are at hand, and that they are not alone in the struggle to succeed.

In early October, Maytree, along with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the BMW Group, hosted delegates from 20 international cities in Toronto to learn more about the DiverseCity onBoard program and how to adapt it to their city context. People came from Atlanta, Barcelona, Berlin, Birmingham, Boston, Calgary, Cologne, Copenhagen, Dublin, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Louisville, Montreal, Oakland, Ottawa, Stuttgart, Sydney, Vancouver, and Vienna.

DiverseCity onBoard trains and facilitates placements of highly qualified candidates on boards of voluntary organizations, and of public agencies, boards and commissions to address the lack of diversity in governance positions in the Greater Toronto Area. It connects qualified candidates from visible minority and under-represented immigrant communities to the various organizations. Over 600 organizations and over 1,500 pre-screened qualified candidates from visible minority and immigrant groups are registered on its searchable database.

In December 2011, the program drew attention from across the world when it was awarded second prize in the Intercultural Innovation Awards at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Doha, Qatar.

Since the program was launched seven years ago, more than 600 board appointments have been made and participating organizations have benefited through better decision-making, increased creativity and improved financial outcomes.

DiverseCity onBoard began life almost a decade ago as a Maytree project called abcGTA, which stood for agencies, boards, and commissions in the Greater Toronto Area. Its initial iterations did not meet Maytree’s standards of success, and so redesign and adaptation was undertaken. The principal innovation was to create a list of screened and qualified candidates so organizations seeking to diversify their governance would be able to find candidates with the expertise (for example finance, government relations, or communications) and governance experience they required. Candidates without governance experience were given governance training to add further value to organizations.

As it became clear that DiverseCity onBoard was achieving success, Maytree began to communicate with other colleagues informally, and found that there was great interest in the program in other immigrant-rich cities around the world. The UNAOC-BMW Group award created the opportunity to consider convening interested cities to talk about taking the Toronto region model elsewhere, and to share the learning Maytree had accumulated over the life of the project.

The October Learning Exchange in Toronto was considered a success by attendees. One of the reasons was that it focused on the very practical questions of how to diversify governance. Those who attended did not have to be convinced of the value of diversifying governance. They were not seeking new theories of diversity. They wanted to know how to do it.

They wanted to learn how to attract, screen and qualify board candidates; to create a searchable web tool and the appropriate content; to develop standards of quality; to reach out to organizations who were thinking about diversifying governance; to make a business case for diversity which could connect the effort to diversify with real value added to the quality and outcomes of their governance; and to measure whether they were making a difference.

The depth and intensity of engagement by people from those 20 cities was clear and exciting. The spontaneous sharing of knowledge and experience happened continuously. Old ideas got better and new ideas emerged. People considered carefully how to apply what they were learning to the particular dynamics of their own city.

The Learning Exchange will now become a community of practice, as people stay linked and continue to share what they are doing and what they are learning. The fact that they have come together around a specific project with the intention of replication or adaptation has provided a strong bond which will produce benefits into the future.

For Maytree this was a great learning experience where we realized the power of sharing practice among motivated colleagues. The creation of a community of practice is a powerful way to bring many lights together, and to let them shine as a beacon.