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Women's work as voluntary board members.

Voluntary boards of feminist organizations inevitably embody questions about the distribution of power and influence. The pressures of globalization which have resulted in the federal government's slow withdrawal from universal funding provide the conditioning framework for women's work as voluntary board members. This article explores the dynamics of women's work as voluntary board members on the board of a feminist service organization in Eastern Canada.

Les conseils d'administration volontaires des organismes feministes incarnent inevitablement la problematique de la distribution du pouvoir et de l'influence exercee. La pression exercee par la globalization et dont le resultat a ete le retrait du soutien financier universel de la part du gouvernement encadrent le travail des femmes au sein de conseils d'administration volontaires. Cet article examine cette dynamique dans le contexte du conseil d'administration d'un organisme feministe a l'est du Canada.


Voluntary organizations can be important in supporting social welfare activities and making the state more democratic and responsive to the rights and needs of all its citizens. As the federal government continues to reallocate its spending dollars and provincial governments and local organizations attempt to adjust to cuts and realignment in government spending (Roeher Institute, 1993; Yalnizian, 1993; Kerans, 1994; Cohen et al. 1998), the ideology of the market provides the "conditioning framework" (Cohen, 1997) for thinking about social welfare. While some argue that the community provision of services is always preferable to professional government services in the field of social welfare (McKnight, 1995), Canadian feminists have worked toward democratic community control of state supported feminist organizations. Voluntary action among women and government funding are not substitutes for one another but rather, in Canada, have become interdependent activities. This situation of government funding for women's services has been the result of a feminist struggle over women's rights as citizens to state funding.

Feminist voluntary organizations have pioneered services and expanded the range of programs available to women beyond what government services or established charities were previously able to provide. Many women have contributed voluntary labour to initiate and steer such community organizations through complex social and economic terrain, having learned to navigate the maze of government departments and funding sources. They have also learned to negotiate social tensions inherent in civil society.

Globalization and the mobility of capital are forces that push the reorganization of capital on human services. Women who have different types of work patterns from men are almost always among the first to experience the negative consequences of the redesign of social programs (Cohen, 1997). The structure of Canada's income support programs (family allowance, unemployment insurance, child support and social assistance) that creates this disparity; Canadian children (especially children living in single parent families) are poorer than those living in Europe (Phipps, 1993). The renewed reliance on the marketplace as the economic mechanism to meet basic social needs can never fully replace the necessity for government funding of public services which in Canada have long supported voluntary action (Brown, 1996). Neither the marketplace nor government services have initiated programs to respond to the needs identified by the feminist movement, originally identified and developed by the efforts of feminists in voluntary community organizations.

The organizations and community groups on whose boards feminists have worked have become significant contributors to the movement for change that is beneficial to women. The pressure of the federal government's withdrawal from universal funding notwithstanding, feminists have also had to opportunity to test out strategies for survival under conditions which are less than favourable because of their early identification of private troubles as public issues. They are well positioned to understand the resulting tensions of doing voluntary work where the ideology of competition and corporatization competes with social welfare and social equality.

Voluntary boards of feminist organizations inevitably embody questions about the distribution of power and influence inside organizations that were created to challenge inequities of gender. As the storm of controversy about June Callwood's role as a board member of a women's shelter in the early 1990s or the more recent 1996 revisioning of a women's addiction service in Ottawa show, internal tension and conflict within feminist organizations are neither new or unique to any one organization (Adair, 1997; Lahey, 1997; Murphy and Levine, 1997). In the wake of the economic harmonization of North America through the Free Trade Agreement (Cohen, 1987) and decreased government funding for social services as a whole, boards of feminist organizations have been the site of labour/management struggles and struggles between women of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. These struggles have tested both the philosophy and capacity of women's services to maintain the delivery of support services by women to other women. They also opened an avenue of exploration into the unpaid work(1) that women do in the voluntary sector of the economy which, like any work, has become subject to the restructuring of labour.

It is invigorating for women to participate on a board that works well. Cherished friendships develop between women from different social worlds. Co-operative efforts toward change provide learning and empowerment. It is also often disheartening for women on voluntary boards to find out that in spite of their best intentions and feminist beliefs, internal organizational strife can be an aspect of organizations founded on the beliefs of the healing powers of "women helping women." It can also be instructive to see how internal conflict and conflict generated in labour/management campaigns can test the struggle for feminist autonomy with government funding in a time of government fiscal restraint.

This article is the result of a collaborative research effort of two former board members (employed as university faculty) of an organization with 17 women who worked as volunteer, or unpaid, workers on a board of a feminist service organization in Eastern Canada. This non-profit organization with a politically feminist mandate was incorporated as a society to assist women in countering violence against women and children. The services provided were both identified and legitimated by the activities of the contemporary women's movement. The organization was incorporated as a Society under the Societies' Act in the late 1970s and had grown from just an idea to an organization that sustained over a half million-dollar budget annually. The mature structure of the organization was already in place when most of the women in this study joined the board. The organization complied with the requirements of the Societies Act for the naming of Executive members and holding elections at an Annual General Meeting.

All 17 women participating in this research were elected community members of the boards, which served during the years 1990-1995. Though some served simultaneously, revolving terms meant that the composition of the board changed from year to year. They represented 1/3 of the total number who served in accordance with the organization's by-laws during this period. Each woman took part in either individual interviews or small group interviews over a period of several months. Each reviewed the transcript of her interview with the research team and provided commentary from that vantage point. All received copies of the original paper written using the data. None continued to work on this particular board at the time of the writing of the article. All have gone on to other activities, though a number continue their personal and professional links with each other.

The women in this study described themselves in different ways, some of which they connected with their invitation to serve on the board. Some identified themselves as representatives of particular constituencies based on social groupings while others brought particular occupational skills and identification to their participation on the board. The women were unemployed, employed full-time and part-time, and retired. They ranged in age from their twenties to sixties, and came from different class locations and descriptions of ethnicity. Some women spoke of direct personal experiences of violence, others did not. Some were experienced board members, most were not. Many had a history of volunteer work in the community, in mainstream as well as feminist organizations. They saw their voluntary work in a local context as pan of a local effort to combat violence against women. None identified concerns about voluntary labour as a form of exploitation of labour in a restructured economy, though most would state that their labour was free to the organization because of their desire to "make a difference." Desire to make change motivated their voluntary work activities that otherwise would cost the organization money.(2)

All of these voluntary women workers believed in the idea of "women helping women"(3) and the need for women to respond to the issues of "wife battering," "violence against women," "sexual assault" and "woman abuse." Some identified themselves as feminists, others did not, even though all would agree that the organization was a feminist one. Most, but not all, believed the board should consist only of women. Many different political affiliations, including partisan politics, were represented by these women.

Like many volunteers new to board work, a few women had direct knowledge of the organization before joining the board, but most only vaguely knew about its daily workings. All, however, realized the extent to which knowledge about violence against women had changed and how the organization, like the issue, had evolved in its almost 20 year history. One former treasurer explains the tremendous service responsibility of the organization and the complexity of its fiscal organization in a time of changing government policies,

I think [the organization managed] half a million dollars and we had various forms of financing, not just fund raising. There was federal, provincial, local [funding] plus the donations from various kinds of people too, not just your typical kind, out there selling events tickets. There would be bequests; there would be all those sorts of things.

Some women found their experiences on the board extremely positive. Some were disillusioned with aspects of their experiences and their response to the experience of board membership was mixed. Others were clear that this experience had soured their desire to such an extent that they would never participate on a board again. Taken as a whole, the women as voluntary workers gave a mixed review on the public perceptions of the success of their voluntary work in sustaining the larger work of the organization. All, however, felt the work was important regardless of public perception and that influencing public perception was simply one of their many tasks.

The women we interviewed varied in their previous involvement with boards. Some had extensive experience and a clear understanding of what board responsibility entailed, others had little idea of what a board should be doing. Typical of those without board experiences, one said,

I'd never served on a board and wasn't really sure just what a board did, but I wanted to do something, to make a difference.

Without this experience it was difficult for women to articulate the ways in which their voluntary labour was underwriting the direction of the organization and sustaining its efforts even as the government was claiming credit for combatting what it called "family violence."

Board Process: Nominations

Although there was never a clearly written policy directive from the organization to the nominating committee of the board on the necessity for diversity among board members, nominating committees attempted to find a slate of candidates from a variety of ethno-cultural, political communities, as well as from service users. Expertise or skills important to the organization were also identified as helpful in identifying potential board members. The nominating committee was most successful in finding representatives of women from different occupational groupings to meet the ongoing technical, financial and legal requirements of the board. The nominating committee was not particularly successful in finding women who had been users of the organization's services willing to represent themselves as such. Instead it relied on staff representation and the inclusion of service users in sub-committee groupings as means of securing this input. It was partially successful in finding "racial minority" women who had relationships both to their own communities and to the issue of violence against women.

Women accepted their nominations through an annual general meeting believing they could contribute to the organization and to the cause. Women on this board, interestingly, often felt they were not women who would be chosen for an advisory board of a government service. As one woman said,

I was interested in the cause. I had some awareness through friends of mine who were involved in the situation. I was a nurse and had seen a lot of things, and I just felt that this was a possibility that could happen to any one.

Becoming a Board Member: Expectations and Orientation

Boards can define themselves in a variety of ways depending on their function. The board in which these women participated was a working board whose members participated in varying degrees in fundraising, policy making, public relations and education, lobbying and other related tasks. This work was essential in order to sustain the activities of the organization and to insure it was able to meet its mandate. It was the kind of board that must exist to counter fiscal restraint on the part of governments. As a result, an increasing amount of its time had come to focus on fundraising and budgetary items.

Employees maintained the daily service functions of the organization, but the board supplemented this paid work with a wide variety of essential tasks. At the time of these women's tenure on the board the organization was still recovering from a previous policy of "no volunteer work" in the organization. This policy had been instituted as a result of calls from staff for a paid volunteer co-ordinator and a concurrent restriction on the type of voluntary activity volunteers could undertake. This decision grew in part from the time-consuming demands of staff supervising non-board voluntary work that would otherwise be considered staff work given unlimited resources. As in many other non-profit organizations, there were both philosophical and practical reasons why the managerial dimension of board work was viewed as necessary but not recognized as either paid work or ordinary voluntary work and subject to that restriction.

Throughout the study period there was ongoing resistance within the organization to the professionalization of what had once been a voluntary women-to-women service. Although aspects of the service were now firmly in the hands of professionally qualified employees demanding professional recognition through licensing bodies and higher salaries, some staff and board members entered into a political battle of wills. Maintaining a voluntary board and having it perform tasks fundamental to the organization's continued existence, as well as governance responsibilities, allowed for a degree of continued community control by the women's community over the services. At the same time, this community control was highly and hotly contested.

Women who were elected to positions on the board knew that they faced a learning experience. For some, it was learning to be a board member. One woman speaks to the unfamiliarity with the functions of board and what might reasonably have been expected of her as a board member:

I am not sure I was well informed about what a board would be like -- I'm not suggesting you tricked me into it. I think I was only able to hear a very limited amount partly because I didn't really understand the duties/responsibilities of board members and how to be a good board member.... I didn't know what was appropriate to bring up at a board meeting, what was "fair" within a discussion, what was relevant. Sometimes I think I get caught up in minute details and get the focus off the main issue.

Given the dynamic nature of each of the particular boards, reconstituted as they were yearly, orientation could never fully be satisfactory because of the diversity of new members and their past experiences with boards. Orientation to the work of the board varied with each successive board every year and was as much a process as an event. Reflectively, one of the women explains that even though she hadn't felt well enough orientated to the work of the board and was determined to assist new board members, neither she nor her board were fully able to orient new members to the expectations of board work. People could not come to quick consensus on how each board was to function, as they simply didn't have enough experiences in common.

We didn't provide to the new members, nor was it provided to me, enough orientation of what we expected, what the style of leadership the board was going to adopt. Were we a board of governance? Were we a board of organizational detail? There were times when we would deal with some of the larger governance questions, but we didn't necessarily all share enough background to discuss questions at the same level.

Women who lacked board experience found the first board meetings discomforting and tried to find a more comfortable space for themselves at the meetings and committees. Some of the women who might have been expected to be familiar with the functioning of boards because of prior board experiences, also had some initial difficulties in finding their way. Describing her entrance into the work of the board one women, an active trade unionist, who later became a prominent board and committee member said,

In the beginning it was quite overwhelming as I had never been a member of a board before, so the first year or so was getting my feet wet, learning the lingo, learning the procedures, learning the politics, learning the roles of individuals and just learning the dynamics. The first year or so was pretty much of a learning period and it was very exciting -- at the same time somewhat frightening -- because I went into it not knowing anything about board membership and feeling, gosh am I going to be able to do this, am I able to live up to whatever it is, whatever standards it is that someone has for me?

At the other extreme of experience another active board member said,

I found my initial experiences were very welcoming and I found it easy to get the flow of things and to understand how board meetings were run and what everybody's role in it was, the contributions. The board meetings were very well attended overall and therefore you had a consistency that went throughout.

Board members took administrative and financial responsibility for the organization. Not all board members identified this as work. However, with almost unanimously humorous reflection, the women who had been most immersed in the work of the board laughed when asked about the organization's expectations of them. They thought the difference between the amount of work they might be expected to contribute to board work and the actual time and effort involved was almost always underestimated. As one woman said,

The chair approached me and I think primarily she saw me as someone who was on my part wanting to do something.... I think my focus towards women and helping women and women helping women was something she thought would be something I would enjoy. She didn't tell me very much. She said, oh it's not that hard, you just come in and there is a monthly meeting.... The time commitment I thought she probably underestimated and she said, oh it's probably only a couple of hours a month. I don't think that was consistent with what she was doing but I think that she was trying to ease me into it.

With delegated authority and decision-making, board members joined additional volunteer and staff representatives and participated in a wide variety of board committee work that might well have been done by paid professionals had this organization been a corporation. Committee work was relatively independent from the formal board and yet dependent upon the efforts of both its members and the chair of the committee who was usually a member of the formal board. These committees, when they were functioning well, were the places many board members found their organizational homes. When they were not functioning well, they disappeared until an effective chair and membership revitalized them. Sub-committees were added as needs and issues were identified.

For the women who stayed with the board throughout their entire terms, their organizational knowledge increased exponentially as their interests and their contributions broadened. As one member of the board said of her increased familiarity with the work of the board,

When I first joined the board I think I distanced myself and thought that really I didn't have anything to contribute with respect to any issues unless they directed related to finances ... but by the end of I think that my involvement in other issues increased dramatically.... It was all those things [beyond the finances and why I had been asked to be on the board], the personnel issues, the social issues, the ethical issues, the moral issues, all of those things [that I found most engaging].

The immersion of active board members, those who stayed for more than a year of service, into board and service politics happened over the three-year membership term. However, for the women who left the board, expectations of potential contributions were dashed. As one of the women of a racialized community explained,

I was concerned about violence against women. I had seen it in families including my own.... I knew what types of things to do for women, and could offer some assistance. I could also refer women [like me] and make connections to [my] community. I could make this environment more accessible to these women. I had skills to offer. I am a very organized person. I thought I had more to offer ... I could encourage more women from [my] community to come to the [organization] if they needed the service.

When women could not find a suitable place for themselves quickly and with ease, they left their board work often by a process of drifting away through non-attendance at meetings. If a board member missed more than three meetings she could be asked to resign. As someone who stayed only one year of her three-year term said,

I let my name stand as a nominee for the board because of my interest in women's issues, and I wanted to do something.... I'd never served on a board and wasn't really sure just what a board did, but I wanted to do something to make a difference.... I found that when I got there I wasn't making a difference.... I didn't fit in.... Sometimes I felt I had to almost apologize for being middle class and I'm kind of tired of all that. I mean, I am middle class and I'm sorry but that doesn't mean I don't want to make a difference.

While this board member alludes to the tensions that can make organizational life uncomfortable within an organization governed by a voluntary board attempting to manage an organization crossing class and social divisions, she clearly states that she did not understand what it was exactly that a board could or might do. In a sense she was searching for a description of the work that she might take part in that would make a legitimate difference for others. She was attempting to define the often unarticulated work of the women she was working with.

Other than the notion of attending meetings and talking and making decisions, the actual working of a board and the work that women did to sustain the activities of the organization was difficult for outsiders or new board members to identify. Its value could often only be judged by the absence of an decisions being made or activities being completed.

The Organization of Work

Boards as legislated structures can differ significantly in character. Some boards are paper boards and never meet because they simply fulfill a technical legal requirement. Other boards are designed to attract funds or to give credence to an organization because of the wealth or public profiles of their members. Because boards have a formal role in the application for and registration as a charitable organization to ensure a socially accepted and tax-exempt form for donations, they become a formal necessity for many organizations. Increasingly, the restructuring of health programs and social service provision has required community representation, generally through the formal structure of a board. The work of this board was in part determined by the legislative requirements of maintaining an identity as a charitable organization for the purposes of financial donations.

One woman of the interview group was part of the original founding board; a second had a very long-term historical relationship to the board and a third a very long historical relationship to the staff. Others had varying relationships to the work of the organization. As the woman who had been part of the original founding board and a board member again over 15 years later explained:

The women on the original board were there because of the motivation to set up a new service, to provide service to women. These women had been through the experience of violence in their own and in their families' lives. They had opened their own homes to women and had practical involvement in finding the facility, finding money. The majority was motivated by social concern for service ...

The second time I was on the board there were numbers of women whose motivation was social concern for service, plus there was the motivation of career development and professionalism.

Even though there were differences in her board experiences, she noted the similarities:

Both boards experienced conflict with orientation on the delivery of service, personality difference, differences in philosophy and how one viewed what was going on in the world.

The Work of Board Members

The activities of all community elected board members was voluntary, undertaken "by choice in service to individuals informally or through organization; without salary or wage" (Ontario Federation of Labour in Brown, 1996). While voluntary, the activities of board members can be considered as work, or unpaid labour. Using a broad feminist redefinition of work (Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990), the activities of board members required effort, required intent, and involved some competence done in real time and associated the material conditions of the work site. It was work that, when talked about by board members, was assumed to be understood, without need for description or elaboration, except to say that it was an often valuable and time consuming activity. It was work that went beyond socializing. It required activities to be completed within organizational timetables and in concert with others.

Each board member had the right and responsibility to attend all board meetings and to vote if necessary. Some board members had designated tasks with assigned responsibilities, including the chair, treasurer, secretary and those who were committee chairs. While this was seen by some as onerous, the most pressing of the work concerns for all board members was the interpersonal communication and decision-making that characterized the overall governance work of a board. There were also the individual contributions, such as compiling budget statements and forecasts, and calling and chairing meetings. Other aspects of work included writing policy and proposals for funding, hiring an Executive Director, and co-ordinating committee and sub-committee activities. The most difficult and the most rewarding work, however, was the interpersonal communication required for people to work as part of a team. As two of the women who both chaired committees as well as the board as a whole said,

It gave me an opportunity for practising skills, negotiating, union contracts, staff and personnel concerns, directing a group of people through a firestorm.... I think I learned the power of people with different perspectives with the same objective trying to combine their skills to get somewhere to set a goal, to reach a goal and to make choices.

The work was very interesting but it could be time consuming especially when it came to interviewing, and hiring, and renting spaces, and being part of think tank sessions, being on the nominating committee and finding the people and making the phone calls and the explanations.

This emphasis on interpersonal and communication skills reflects the findings of a comprehensive survey of Canadian volunteer work which states that these two aspects of work are the most frequently cited skills people acquire as volunteers (Government of Canada, 1987).

When broken into specific tasks the work of a board member can be viewed as very fragmented. Some of it was characteristic of the multi-tasking that women do as women in families and other work organizations. As one woman in conversation with another said of this work fragmentation,

Some of it was short term, like going out and speaking, and some of it was longer term, like this [list of approximately 32 tasks to be completed in one day], like grant applications, and some of it was fence mending and some of it was trying to create something that would pay off down the road.

In commenting on the amount of effort board work took, people made very different and varied contributions in terms of both time and effort with different levels of skill being brought to the tasks. As one woman who worked on board activities at least several hours a week said,

I never felt overwhelmed. There was a reasonable amount of work and there was work over time.... It wasn't the amount of work but rather the lack of progress that I found difficult. Once you had the work under control it was like being in maintenance mode. The real work for me was the control of the meeting.

At the other end of the continuum, another found the effort and time required to accomplish the work to excessive. As a prime candidate for "burn-out" she said,

As my involvement increased and [specific] issues became more intense I found that given my greater involvement and given the difficulties that were being experienced my responsibilities increased to the point where the time and effort I was spending on the organization was much greater than I was even spending on my regular work. There always seemed to be something going on.

While meetings were primarily for the business of the organization there were also social dimensions to board relationships. Committees of the board frequently met over meals or snacks, rides to and from board meetings were proffered and accepted, and an annual appreciation party allowed for an entirely social event. Often socializing translated into individual friendships and/or working relationships that often continued after board service. While those who left the board early in their term did not feel a part of its activities, even those who experienced initial discomfort at their first meetings came to regard the social support and solidarity of board members as an important and positive dimension of their work.

During their board service, these women built up a sense of trust for each other through regular meetings and discussion on difficult issues. For the women who stayed on the board this created a sense of trust of each other's commitment to the organization even when individuals did not agree politically or on organizational issues. This solidarity was often tested during politically motivated and publicly orchestrated organizational debates.

The work of the board depended on a sense of caring for others and each other or, in other words an "ethics of care" (Noddings, 1984), that infuses much of "women's work." The task of caring has social, psychological and physical dimensions that resemble paid work in the skills required and the demands or expectations placed on the woman undertaking this work. It is work that is often undervalued in a societal sense and certainly in a monetary one. It is the work of relationship-building essential for teamwork that was often invisible to outsiders to the boards.

It was this caring and the depth of emotional caring expressed by many board members that was sometimes overwhelming. One woman, a rarity in terms of her neutral emotional response to being a board member, reported how she side-stepped any emotional roller coaster through professional detachment.

I didn't have any interest in becoming involved in the politics, my involvement was as a professional volunteer, not personal interest, and my reason for being there was to provide my skill and expertise to the organization.

By contrast, another women who had an equally extensive history in the organization had more difficulty in maintaining this emotional distance. In part this may have been a result of her personnel and financial positioning when she was forced to play dual organizational roles.

I became, really, too involved. It didn't do me any good and now that I am older I am looking at it and saying it didn't do me any good and I can't see that it did too much anywhere else. So it caused me an awful lot of psychic pain and energy.... But to me it was a cause. There was just no cleavage between people, it was a cause, we were all working for the same bottom line ... you have to make room, and I guess, people take that room.

In the interchange between two board members with different political perspectives, it is interesting to note the speculation as to why both women cared so deeply about the work they were doing:

Do you think we feel so deeply because in a way, we acknowledge that we are but a stroke away from ... needing those kinds of services [we provide]?


Maybe that is it? In a sense we are fortunate. But we have all felt, as women, very vulnerable.

These women saw collective community organization as the strategy to use in addressing the needs of women. They did not rely on personal relationships to address what they saw to be a social issue (Side, 1999).

Perhaps what is most significant about this caring for the organization is the way in which it influenced the participation and work of its board members. Those members who invested the most time and effort also for the most part put their personal selves on the line over differences. They were willing to risk both confrontation and co-operation for the benefit of the organization. Sometimes these risks reaped great personal rewards and sometimes they were personally painful.

One board member offered this advice on keeping personal and political agendas in check:

A voluntary board works best when its members are committed to doing board work for the right reasons. In providing the service, board members get something out of its as well as the board, it is best when it is this win-win situation.

What a board member gets out of it may differ, she may meet people, build friendships, network, develop professional skills, meet professional requirements of service, develop skills not being used elsewhere. Every individual has different motivations. To work well a nominating committee has to be clear about what you can do, what the board can offer you and what you can give to the board.

Tensions Between Social Groups

Tensions are almost inevitable when a group of very different people are brought together on behalf of a common cause. At the same time very different people working together toward a common goal can strengthen the efforts of others when there is a shared set of beliefs or at a minimum an agreed-upon goal. All of the women on this board believed in the power of women working with women. All believed in the services the organization had to offer. Many believed in the benefits of all female boards for women, while a few felt that a board could and should be open to men who were strategically aligned with the women's movement. As one woman said of the tensions that are internal to board dynamics,

I have been involved in a couple of boards, and I think what this experience did for me was to show me how well it can work and at the same time how badly it can work.

Another spoke to the internal tensions she encountered while on the board that were not resolvable for her.

I went on the board with the understanding that there would be other members of minorities. I was the only [one] and was very uncomfortable sitting around the table with so-called upper-class women. I didn't stay on long because I was given the impression that there would be other minorities and there weren't. I didn't feel welcomed.

Although this woman was not the only minority member on the board or the only constituency representative, she was the token minority for her particular community and thus vulnerable to isolation that came from token representation. She left the board unable to find commonality with others.

Each of the yearly constituted boards had different difficulties to deal with. Several had to deal with the consequence of hiring and firing decisions without being able to fully state the rationales because of the principle of protecting the privacy of staff members and clientele. Several faced protracted union negotiations and one had to contend with difficult labour certifications and negotiations conducted in the media. As a result of a highly visible and partisan political lobby against one particular board, one woman's very valuable work as a tradeswoman with particular skills essential to a successful committee was lost to the organization because of her resignation over political interference. Speaking of her involvement in a political battle she did not fully understand, she believes that hers was not a typical experience. However, as a result of the political conflict emanating from outside, rather than from inside the board, she said she had become "soured for board membership," never wanting to be at the centre of a political battle again. As she put it,

Volunteers should not have to endure insults, ridicule, insinuations.... I felt put upon by the events and resented the stress and name calling. I was here as a volunteer, and wanted to help but was sickened by the nonsense.

A board that attempts to diversify its membership to represent a variety of differences among women contains a powerful force for both potential cooperation across differences and potential disunity within the group. It then has to learn to create a cohesive body for itself in dealing with outside forces. Women learn that they can look beyond the perceived stereotypes and find commonality that is beneficial to the organization. One woman spoke of the benefits of working with others and she pointed to her new understanding:

I think I took away an enhanced awareness of the women's community. I think it did operate differently because it was women.

Another woman points to the significant effect the positive experience of working with women had on her relationships to other women as well as with her child.

I think the one thing that I always remarked on was the variety and varied backgrounds, the socio-economic [differences] and past experiences of the board. The board had the ability to come together and come up with a workable decision that was in the best interests of the organization. People on this board could put away their own agendas and whatever they might have and focus on and try to do what was best for the organization ...

I think the three years on the board gave me a strength and a different focus on what was truly important in life and I don't think that is just aging and maturity and exposure to different circumstances.... A group of women can provide an environment for a child or for other women or for whatever.

This overwhelmingly positive response to board experience was tempered for this same woman by the experiences of conflict over time.

You can't go, I don't think you can go through three years, and always have positive experiences with every board member. Some board members I found incredibly frustrating, because they just didn't seem to want to think about, especially near the end, to think about what was really important or this organization and to try to come up with a workable solution.

What was the difference between those who experienced a positive relationship to the tensions inevitable in board dynamics and those who found it impossible? The answers lie in more than just personal histories or autobiographies. Yes, women did, as one woman said, experience "personal demons" and yes, they did "drive her crazy,"

trying to be fair, trying to make sure none of my old hurts and sore spots from my other organizational experiences were the source of my decisions on things.

Yet personal ability and personal history with an organization were not the only reasons for different experiences on boards. Board members' differential location often structured relationships between themselves and other groups differently located within in the organization (staff, users of the service, the larger public, and community committee members). Staff and users of the service for instance could be expected to have different immediate interests from board members as their day to day relationships to the organization were premised on very different experiences. As one woman put it,

The biggest concern while I was on the board was not so much the board itself but what was going on outside the board behind the scenes, the labour difficulties that were being experienced and that grew and progressed and caused the most difficulty. It wasn't the board itself.

In the same conversation another woman commented,

Do you think the board was naive in assuming the negotiations would follow a conventional labour practice? ... I think it is ironic that if the ideological orientation was to be a whole or a collective, that the strategy used to keep that in the forefront [of the labour struggle] was the one that has led to a rigidly structured relationship to the employer, with the board, with the Director.

Class, often expressed in relation to the economic issues of the organizational service, and race, expressed in relation to skin colour, were the two most salient aspects of producing internal tension on the board. Those who stayed long enough to work out the process over time could only work through these tensions. An appreciation of the persons behind the differences allowed individuals to accommodate each other's views and to engage in dialogue with each other. Access to different kinds of social resources, access to material support, and access to an analysis which put personal experience into political perspective were essential in lessening some of the personal costs of board membership during times of crises. Access to these resources increased with both social and economic wealth.

With the strategy of viewing other persons as part of a class of people who were enforcing their view of the world upon others, a strategy that is traditional to some organizing politics, it is almost impossible to work through differences that are located not only in personality but in differential organizational or class locations. One woman who experienced feelings of betrayal as a board member did so on the basis of the public suggestions she was a traitor to her first constituency who she represented on the board:

I was faced with a duality of roles. My role changed, and my perception by others changed and I was perceived by [the members of my group] as not being on their side anymore which was very difficult for me to deal with. At the same time I was involved in those roles at the Board I was also experiencing some changes in my own life. I was going from being a trade union member to a business owner so it seemed like the walls came crashing down all around me even though I still had the same [class] values and principles and beliefs inside of me and was trying to express those.

From the economically wealthier side of the equation another said,

It was very difficult at that time, not just because of [the person who was insulting the integrity of board members] but it was the attitude that was on the board for the most part. Everyone else kept quiet ... it was very difficult to sit there and listen to this person, and to know that if you opened your mouth and said anything people would jump on you and give you a hard time.

A third described the power of victimology in certain representations of feminism.

It's like in the office here there are girls and there are lawyers. It's called the girl/lawyer distinction. You can't be a lawyer and be woman, you are either a girl or a lawyer. On the board if you were not the notion of woman that is the political perspective of victimization then you were not "one of us" [one of the legitimate defenders of service users]. So you had to have shitty experiences in life to be considered good enough to be one of us.

Some women went out of their way to assist others to assimilate to the board, taking proactive steps to help others they saw as being in a disadvantaged position with other members of the board. Some saw the potential for class and race antagonism and attempted to work on personal relationships as a way of negotiating them.

Some women who were part of an organizational battle over who in the organization ought to have a say around decision-making in the organization viewed this struggle as predicated on the use of evolving classed demarcations between various organizational groupings. One board member who had previously been a staff member of the organization framed it this way,

The staff composition had altered greatly over time resulting in the sameness in the worker[s]. I had always been vocal in my opposition to this as a staff member and as a board member. The "profile" of the worker had become -- white, married women of mid-30s, degree holder (almost always social worker). Some of the relief staff [who did not fit this profile] spoke with me privately about this because they believed the organization was inaccessible to many women due to the staff. They said "staff" were only interested in certain types of cases. They believed the organization was catering to a certain client profile that was white female, between 18-25 years of age, single with children, drug/or alcohol problems, with housing, rather than abuse by a partner being the biggest issue.

At the same time as professionalism and class identity was defining staff, a similar kind of identification was being applied to board members. Whether or not women came from a class background of privilege as a whole, the board in one year was characterized by its severest critics in a labour struggle as members of the "upper class" and "middle class" and "out of touch with the larger community of women." Victimology and representations of service users as a homogeneous group of women, which they were not, and board members as another homogeneous group, which they were not, was the rhetoric used to sustain a public conflict. Issues of partisan power were powerful forces in a time of changing economics and demands for organizational accountability predicated on a fluid and open membership structure.

Critics of board members, from outside the board, connected the experience of class to the experience of violence experienced by service users. As a one board member said,

The board members were perceived to be financially secure, possibly financially independent women, who were anything but victims and therefore had little in common with the users of the service they provided for. Even if it became known to [critics] that a particular board member had experienced abuse at some point in her life, this was usually minimized either in the severity of the abuse or the impact of the violence.

What is ironic is that the organization's original mandate had been built on gender solidarity as a form that was to outweigh the solidarity of class relations. Yet when a board of women who believed in the organization's goals and objectives met up with organized dissent, class became the issue that undermined the board, regardless of the actual class position of its various members and the organizational mandate of gender solidarity. A male-dominated union movement intent on drawing women into its ranks went publicly head-to-head with a female-dominated board.

Unfortunately those on the board who experienced personal vulnerability in the struggle because of their social identities and positions were, expectedly, most at risk in internalizing any external conflict. Fortunately the experience of new friendships among those board members who made it through their three-year term tempered the more negative experiences of political and ideological conflict.

The Value of Unpaid Work

Board members do work that is self-constituting, intended to help oneself and others and is freely chosen. Volunteer work contributes to the development of human capital. That is to say, individuals who become voluntary board members financially benefit because of the development of skill that is possible from taking part in board activities. One study found that volunteers in Canada earn 5% higher incomes than non-volunteers, an increase which surpasses the earnings which have been attributed to productivity gains (Day and Devlin, 1993). Another American study demonstrates that the value of voluntary work produces value not only for the organization and society involved but for both constituencies, volunteers and recipients of the volunteer activities (Brown, 1999).

The value of representative working boards to board members lies not only in economics and social recognition but also in the opportunities for people to direct an organization through a process of both dissent and agreement. The work of board members in this organization was never intended to replace paid workers (those who delivered service assistance). It was also work that, had the organization been a private or crown corporation, might well have been done by professionalized employees.

Significantly, the work of board members was not replacement labour for displaced labour, it was free labour, voluntarily given, with an economic value that could only be assigned when the tasks were turned into paid positions, positions such as fund-raisers, publicists, lobbyists, public educators, development officers. "In-kind" accounting recognition of contributions of voluntary hours of work by board members and committee members would demonstrate a significant change in the economic value of an organization, with the revenue of the organization having to show a significantly higher financial value. Yet assessing the value of volunteer work even in economic terms is extremely complex (Luxton, 1997; Brown, 1999) and the value is generally ignored by the grantors of public monies.

Concluding Comments

Voluntary board work sustains the development of women's organizations and the institutionalization of services that did not previously exist. Yearly, new board members learn about the issues addressed by their organizations; they learn about what board work is, and they learn about their particular organizations and the social relations of board membership. To withstand erosion of women's services, women's organizations must more clearly articulate and value the unpaid voluntary work that women do -- giving advice, representing a constituency, assisting in the direct provision of professional service, assisting in the informal provision of caring work, making tough decisions in times of fiscal change, maintaining social relationships and interpersonal support as an integral part of organizational development. The community of women interested in gender equality need not be bought off by the rhetoric of the economic bottom line as the rationale for identifying, assessing, and valuing their work. Equitable social welfare is still an important feminist goal in times of social and economic restructuring.

The experiences of voluntary women workers suggest that what may lie ahead in the restructuring of a labour market is the downsizing of former government services. Women's organizations have learned to work as "working boards" -- boards that are required to do more than make decisions of governance. In this situation, there is a great need for women to identify the work board members will be required to undertake in the future, with the understanding that there are inherent tensions in this work.

Dealing with issues of representation of difference and organizational strife and disillusionment are part of the nature of a working board. Managing the inherent tensions in organizations relying on voluntary labour to sustain paid work is a difficult task. Women board members of feminist organizations appear to be among those who have come to realize that a conservative social and fiscal policy is not inevitable, but must be challenged to support voluntary activity. Difficult politics are among the tasks of organizational life that must be accomplished if voluntary organizations are to secure public and private funding to sustain their programs.


(1.) The feminist redefinition of work includes both paid and unpaid work (Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990). The work we are considering here can be defined as activities women purposefully undertook to respond to community needs through the activities of social welfare (Baines, Evans and Neysmith, 1991).

(2.) For a recent consideration of different methods to assess the valuation of unpaid labour (focussed on domestic labour as the example) see Luxton, 1997; Brown, 1999; Woolley, 1999.

(3.) For a review of how these women identify their work, see Neal and Gordon

"`Women Helping Women': The Unpaid Work of Women Board Members" Canadian Women Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (1998), pp. 131-135.


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Author:Gordon, Jane; Neal, Rusty
Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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