Your park’s governance structure: why the committee leadership might work for you

Resource | juillet 8, 2019

Are you currently running your park group with a growing number of volunteers? Is your group getting more ambitious and looking for some direction around governance? The committee model is useful when your group is too large for a leadership team model or if you are looking for ways to share leadership better and move things along more quickly. How the committee model gets applied varies based on the nature of your group and your goals. We asked the Friends of Roxton Road Parks to give you a flavour of what the committee model might mean for your organization.

It’s no surprise that park groups organize themselves differently from not-for-profit organizations with paid staff. For many volunteers, park work is a ‘side-hustle’ on top of work or family responsibilities. Individual responsibilities can range from light to overwhelming, and the governance model that an organization has a lot to do with moderating workload. 

Grassroots Growth, a project from Volunteer Toronto, highlights three models of governance common for smaller organizations like most community park groups. The three most common models to consider for your community park group are Strong Leader, Leadership Team and Committee. This article will illustrate the application of the Committee model, as applied by (FoRRP).

According to Grassroots Growth, with the Committee model “members of the governance structure are organized into various committees or working groups. Each committee is responsible for specialized tasks with respect to the group’s activities. All the committees do work that ties back to the organization’s mission and vision.” The Committee model is useful when your group is too large for a Leadership Team model or you are looking for ways to share leadership better and move things along more quickly.

We spoke with Zac Childs, Convenor of FoRRP in Toronto, Ontario, whose organization takes care of three parks in west Toronto: Fred Hamilton Playground, George Ben Park, and the Roxton Road Parkette. 

The organization came into being in 2011 when a group of eight Ward 19 neighbours responded to a City of Toronto need for local guidance on upgrades to Fred Hamilton Playground. These eight people formed FoRRP, which started out with a Leadership Team governance model: each member had a distinct duty, but all worked together on a common goal. The Leadership Team model spreads the load amongst a number of members.

  1. Growing ambitions/plans

    As the group’s goals quickly became more ambitious, members were struggling to keep up with all of the duties that their positions entailed. A year after it was formed, the loose affiliation of people sharing a common purpose had officially formed the Friends of Roxton Road Parks, comprising a Board of Directors and distinct committees formed to oversee specific aspects of the revitalization of the three adjacent parks along Roxton Road. 

    FoRRP moved from a Team Leadership to a Committee model in order to tackle more projects more effectively, spreading the workload amongst more people in an organized fashion. Committees consist of several members who tackle one project area, such as ‘history’ or ‘playground’. Each FoRRP committee has a Chair and a Co-Chair to lead committee activities. Committees may also have other regular members, depending on their size. All committees are overseen by the Board of Directors, which decides on the direction that the organization is going to take. Directors may be Committee Chairs and Co-Chairs, but it is not a prerequisite for being a Director.

    Committees pursue various initiatives independently and make their own decisions. Major initiatives are typically approved by the Board of Directors before they are initiated, especially if they require funds from the group or municipal approval. If there are multiple options, Directors may decide to hold a vote.

  2. Staying Organized

    In all, FoRRP has over 50 members including Directors, committee members and peripheral members who mostly come out to events. The organization also maintains an email list of approximately 150 consisting of members and volunteers, neighbours, park users, and anyone else who wishes to follow the group’s activities. 

    “The more the better,” comments Childs. “Groups like ours can use all the friends we can get, so we don’t insist on membership to be in the know about what we are doing. In fact, that information encourages people to join.”

    FoRRP holds an Annual General Meeting, open to the public, where Board Directors and Chairs of the various committees are nominated and voted in. To keep silos from forming within the group, the organization also has four Steering Committee meetings per year in which they discuss park activities and the progress of the committees. Some members of the broader group also attend these meetings. 

    FoRRP committees currently include:

    • Greening 
    • History/Heritage 
    • Events 
    • Playground 
  3. Building momentum

    Since the FoRRP group officially convened in 2011, some City of Toronto funds were procured and allocated for work beginning at Fred Hamilton Park for maintenance and capital upgrades. Significant park levies from a condo development on College Street have provided additional funds for future upgrades as well, but that was not enough. FoRRP applied for a Live Green Toronto grant, for which they had to become an official not-for-profit (NFP) organization. Since FORP already had a board of directors and a more formalized governance structure, they were ahead of the game in that respect.

    As part of the transition to NFP, FoRRP decided on four key principles to guide their park husbandry, principles designed to align the growing membership on organizational purpose:

    • Climate Change Action: addressing climate change at the local level 
    • Intergenerational: activities for all ages
    • Creativity: treating the neighbourhood as a locus for creative park solutions
    • History: showcasing physically and socially historical aspects of the neighbourhood.
  4. Building in resilience

    Volunteer groups need to build in resilience in order to operate and thrive. The Committee model helps with that. When there is a change in the group or someone in a leadership position leaves, a benefit of the Committee structure is that it enables another member who is already involved in that aspect of FoRRP’s work to step in and fill the shoes of the member who is departing.

    Like most all-volunteer groups, FoRRP has had many people join and step away as their interests and obligations changed. In a bid to facilitate such changes, the group has come up with a few practices: asking for advance notice when someone is stepping down, always bringing in new volunteers, keeping good records, and being open to dropping a park initiative if a member resigns. 

    As Childs says “Ultimately, we want our members to keep doing what they’re doing as long as it’s fun. When you get people working together in committees, it increases their ability to step up and fill a void left by a departing committee member. We’re prepared when people come and go.” 

    If your parks group is taking on more responsibility and has a growing core team, think about the Committee model of governance. It puts control into more hands and can make it easier to divide the workload to achieve more. It’s also a flexible path to creating a more formalized governance structure. This can ease the way to incorporation if that is a group goal. 

    For more detailed information on this model and others, check out Grassroots Growth's excellent online resources