Ontario HR association outgrows volunteer roots

Rapid growth, high staff turnover prompt restructuring.

Associations are typically built, and in most cases only exist, thanks to the commitment and hard work of volunteers. But, however commendable their dedication, at some point in the evolution of an association, dependence on volunteers can become a problem.

Such has been the case for the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario and later this week, at their annual general meeting, members of the HRPAO will vote on a series of bylaws intended to change that.

From now on the board will focus on setting the strategy and creating the long-term plan that will best serve the membership, while staff will be left alone to implement. The changes were probably overdue, said Dan Stapleton, CEO of the HRPAO.

The most visible sign of problems was high turnover of staff, particularly at the leadership position.

“The board was over managing and it became unwieldy,” said Stapleton. “There was a revolving door at the executive director position and I think that was one of the reasons they had to make the change.”

The board wouldn’t let the executive director do his job, and either the person would leave in desperation or would be fired.

The proposed changes will, among other things, reduce the number of directors on the board and change the criteria to determine if candidates are qualified for the position. No longer will they be elected to represent regions, rather they will be chosen by the membership at large and there will be a greater emphasis on supplying “the skills and experience commensurate with the needs of the board.”

These are the functional changes that facilitate a new vision for how the association operates.

The association had grown rapidly in recent years to the point where today it’s a $5-million, 30-employee operation serving 11,000 members; they expect to double in size again over the next 10 years. Growth like this is obviously good news, but in the last 10 years little had changed with how the association operated. Often associations start out small and volunteers do everything, said Stapleton. But as they grow and full-time staff are brought on board things get complicated. Roles aren’t clearly defined, employees and volunteers end up stepping on each other’s toes and the organization suffers.

And as is often the case with volunteer-run associations, committees were struck to deal with issues as they popped up. At one point there were as many as 50 committees on the books and staff were spending a large part of their time just on care and feeding for the committees, he said. What’s more, because committee members were there as representatives of the members at large, they sometimes felt like they could tell staff what to do.

By late 2000, it was clear things needed to change. Once again, they were looking for a new executive director and had hired a consultant to help with the recruitment. “The search consultant said you have to clean up the act or you won’t be able to maintain stability.”

Soon after Stapleton was hired, an intensive six-day strategic planning session explored new possibilities for the association. From that session they elected to adopt the Policy Governance model which emphasizes a clear distinction between the roles of the CEO, staff and the board.

John Carver, architect of the model, has stated that “board members are usually intelligent and experienced persons as individuals. Yet boards, as groups are mediocre.” In recent years, the Policy Governance approach has enjoyed a great deal of popularity with associations.

Already there have been considerable improvements at HRPAO as they commit themselves to adding new value for members, said Stapleton. Until recently the association had been focused almost solely on the Certified Human Resources Professional designation (CHRP). It is still a very important part of what they do, but “it isn’t the be all and end all. Once members get it there has to be a reason to be involved,” explained Stapleton.

Surveys indicated members wanted more professional development opportunities. HRPAO has been doing a good job for entry-level HR professionals, but the association wants to explore the possibility of delivering more opportunities for people at the mid- and senior-levels, as well as new ways of delivering them — a Web cast on changes to the Employment Standards Act, for example — while working to keep costs down. Fees have increased little in the last eight years while it has become more expensive to run the association, said Stapleton.

They’ve also hired PR firm Hill & Knowlton to help educate the business community about the CHRP and the profession as a whole. They are planning to introduce a more proactive media relations strategy with more press releases emanating from the head office and hopefully more HR professionals being quoted in mainstream media.

Last month, HRPAO bought space in the Globe and Mail and ran a two-page supplement directed to the business community intended to raise the profile of the CHRP and the profession as a whole. It was the first of three such supplements to be produced this year.

Ian Turnbull, president of the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations, said that by virtue of its size, a stable, well-run HRPAO is good news for all Canadian HR professionals. “HRPAO is one of the biggest organizations and it sometimes sets the tone for what is going on at other places.”

HR has been gaining more respect as a profession in the business community but it still has a long way to go to earn the respect it deserves, said Turnbull. When people read the two-page ad in the Globe and Mail, they should begin to get a better sense of what HR has to offer.

Stapleton is confident the bylaws will pass and expects voter turnout to be higher than usual. In a quiet year when there are few contentious issues on the slate, 100 members might vote. This year there could be 200, he said.

There are a lot of questions about logistics, but most people seem to think the ideas for changes are good. “Most people think it is a positive thing.”

Certainly some members are concerned about giving up regional representation and are worried the board will be dominated by Toronto, said Stapleton. If nominations for candidates are sent in and there’s a region underrepresented, then the committee that oversees nominations will go find some, he said.

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