“I definitely felt trepidation. It's a big commitment and I wanted to have the time and ability to make a difference,” says Christine Haeberlin about her decision in 2010 to join the board of directors of Ability Online, a not-for-profit based in Toronto, Canada. For ten years, Christine, now an insurance industry business development executive for IBM in Canada, provided support at an annual golf tournament as a corporate sponsor for Ability Online—a free and monitored online community for young people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
“I met many wonderful people through the golf tournament who support Ability Online and heard the stories of kids and families who had benefited from the organization,” says Christine. “Although I didn't have any personal connection or understanding of the challenges they face, I thought I could make a difference and personally grow from working with a not-for-profit and a diverse group of people.”
Helping the organization advance
Ability Online offers a safe, online social network where children with disabilities and their families can connect with others, share stories, seek and receive advice, and “participate in an atmosphere of collaboration, companionship and support.” Michelle McClure, the executive director at Ability Online, says that “Instead of isolating a child with autism who understands they are different from the other kids, here they feel like they can finally fit in and be themselves.” She adds, “One of my favorite quotes from one of the parents is ‘It’s easier to type through the tears than talk through them.’”
Ability Online has helped more than 40,000 registered members since its inception in 1992. Yet, continuous improvement is vital, and helping to strengthen an organization’s programs and services is one of a not-for-profit board member’s responsibilities. With initial guidance from an IBM volunteer learning guide called “Becoming an Effective Not-For-Profit Board Member”, Christine embraced her role at Ability Online to add value that is meaningful and productive in helping the organization advance.
Since Ability Online delivers its service on the Internet, Christine recruited a volunteer from IBM’s software lab in Toronto to lead a team of developers to create online content for a then-new program called Friendship Builder, which facilitates the development of social thinking and appropriate social responses in and out of the classroom. Christine also enlisted the help of two other IBM volunteers—Caroline Finlay and Anne Ewan—to help with other aspects of the organization’s online presence. Caroline provided content about autism to help members and parents access the resources they need, while Anne used her passion for writing to encourage kids to improve their writing. “It was great working with these three special and talented IBM volunteers,” says Christine. “We depend extensively on volunteers and each of them provided unique support that helps make Ability Online a success.”
Defining outcomes to grow impact
An IBM Centennial Grant sponsored by Christine supported the organization in building its Transitions program to prepare Ability Online’s high school students for employment situations through the use of online tools which had not previously been available in Canada to these students. As part of the Transitions project, volunteers serve as content specialists and mentors providing guidance in such areas as dressing for success, living on a budget and going to college with a disability.
Having celebrated its twenty year anniversary in late 2012, Ability Online is entering that part of a healthy organization’s growth cycle where the initial vision is being achieved and the next set of challenges are to be defined. That same year, using an IBM Activity Kit, Measuring Success with Outcomes, Christine led fellow volunteers in putting together an integrated strategy to evaluate Ability Online’s entire program and to identify measures of impact. The team has now aligned the organization’s desired outcomes with measures of success for its core constituents. “The outcomes kit was easy to understand and incredibly helpful at getting us started. It’s very valuable in getting a small committee moving forward on how we do basic reporting to measure our impact,” says Christine.
Making time, making a difference
Moving forward, Christine believes Ability Online’s biggest challenge is spreading the word about the support they offer. She says, “Once families find us, they tell us that Ability Online has made a huge difference for their children.” In several ways, Christine’s experience as a volunteer has also made a difference for her, both personally and professionally. “What's most interesting is how much I learn—from the type of organization we are to the insights and interactions that I have with other board members. It’s very motivating to work together for a common purpose that benefits others,” she says.
“Volunteering creates an empathy that's important in how you interact with others—even professionally. My insurance clients are very committed to the communities they serve, so it helps to identify with them when you appreciate how important public service is.”
Today one of her original sources of anxiety about joining a not-for-profit has been eliminated. “Volunteering is really important and once you get into it, it's easy to make the time,” Christine says. “In fact, it's amazing how you will make choices to make the time. And the payback is extraordinary.”