Hilde Helsen interview

ToolBox is looking for a new President for its Board of Directors. (see here) An excellent opportunity to have a chat with the outgoing president, Hilde Helsen. 

Practical tips for non-profit organizations by Hilde Helsen, president of ToolBox 


An interview by Philip Verhaeghe 

Hilde Helsen became ToolBoxer in 2008, joined the board in 2011 and became president in 2014. Next year she will complete her third and final three-year term as president.  

Hilde is also a strong supporter of time-limited presidencies: "For any organization, the real test of sustainability is whether it can survive its presidents. An organization only really exists thanks to its social role (I think of the 'purpose' and the 'Why') and not thanks to the individuals who occupy a particular role at a given moment! 

We only asked her a single general question, and it provided enough inspiration for an entire blog post: 

Which questions should a president of a non-profit organisation regularly ask himself and why? 

We hope that the many presidents in the ToolBox network find this inspiring.  



Before going into detail, let's have a look at her vision on the role and tasks of a president: The board president is and remains the "director" of all supervisory and future-preparing processes in the boardroom. This involves many governance tasks and responsibilities. We invite you to read on this subject the pages 14 and 15 of the code “Aanbevelingen goed bestuur in de welzijns- en zorgorganisaties ". But every governance code talks about it. 

Hilde Helsen completely agrees with what we find in these pages, but she emphasizes that she feels above all like the one who gives impetus, who gives a rhythm. She seeks to stimulate the functioning of the association and does so mainly by forming an active tandem with the director of the operational team. She also invests a lot of time in personal relationships with Board members. "At the end of each year, I have an open and honest 1-on-1 conversation with each of them. Together, we look back and forward. I measure their well-being, their interests, their proposals and their projects. "  

In a diverse board, with very varied skills, it is not necessary for the president to also have a content-related speciality: "I prefer to focus on meeting dynamics and constructive interaction between members. I leave the substantive interventions to the specialists and generalists with their different backgrounds, ages and characters. I am constantly challenging them to provide their own vision." 


During our conversation, we came to these five crucial questions that every president should ask themselves regularly: 

  1. Are we still using the right methods to achieve our purpose? 
  2. Are we still with the right people around this table? 
  3. Does the board receive the right information in time? 
  4. Are the right questions on the agenda? 
  5. Do I form a good tandem with my director? 

We give here extra explanation and clarification. 


The world, the environment, the people, the social needs... Today, everything is changing so fast. We are experiencing lightning-fast technological evolution with major innovations in the field of digitization, (mobile) internet, robotization and artificial intelligence. In recent years, many associations have unconsciously evolved into a digitally driven organization and even, during the corona period, led virtually. 

"As president, I therefore regularly have to ask myself whether we are still applying or deploying the right processes to achieve our objective. For example, does what we do with our interventions still make sense? We must remain relevant and self-critical! You can do that with this exercise: imagine not having your past and sitting here in front of a blank sheet of paper, how would we live up to our mission and vision?  

One thing is clear: Hilde Helsen certainly never wants to hear the answer"Because we have always done it this way". 


A good president knows that the skills of directors are crucial. And not only with regard to the social, financial and legal issues of the non-profit world. Today, every board also needs expertise in digitalization and sustainability. "When we have a vacancy on the Board, we not only take great care to describe the desired skills profile, but we also have to make sure that this profile is correct. As president, I am very involved in the  recruitment process. I make sure that each candidate has a clear and concrete vision of our expectations. Only then can they decide for themselves if and how they can contribute. Then I make it a point of honor to ensure a neat onboarding. I admit, this does require some extra time, but you will regain it in terms of efficiency afterwards." 

Only if you make a thorough introduction will he or she quickly feel comfortable and be able to contribute. It also means that the older board members must accept that what they take for granted or traditional may be challenged by newcomers. 

Another point: technically speaking, a board of directors actually meets too infrequently to be able to form a cohesive "team". Nevertheless, the president must do his best to encourage regular participation and harmonious cooperation. 

Hilde Helsen thus ensures that each director can fulfill their control or strategy tasks with complete freedom and independence. Preferably through constructive and critical debates. “Because you also need the innovative points of view and perspectives of newcomers in order to grow. » 


Clear and as complete as possible information on the situation of the organization is the main raw material for each member of the board, for each board meeting. The president ensures the quality, quantity and timeliness of this information. Directors, and especially the president, should never be surprised by bad news. “Our directors receive all the necessary documents fourteen (!) days in advance and are supposed to read them carefully.” When she looks back to her first board meeting at ToolBox, Hilde marvels at the whole evolution. “At the time, there was a sheaf of paper with the agenda and the report on the table. Now everything is digitized. All board documents are on a sharepoint and the directors communicate easily by email, WhatsApp and Teams." 

"Our team has developed a very clear report format with recognizable color codes and fixed templates. This saves a lot of time and increases efficiency. Recently we have also added the UN SDG's to our reports. 

In the meantime, the directors also regularly receive specific information outside the framework of the meetings. "Operations team members are also part of the WhatsApp group. They post photos and messages about ToolBox activities. And we keep each other up to date with our external contacts, like those in the ToolBox Ambassadorship program." 


An effective board president never loses sight of the strategic priority: achieving the non-profit organization's social objective in a sustainable way. This concern for continuity determines the form and content of the diaries. Each point on the agenda has a specific code: for decision, for discussion, for information,... The explanations are deliberately very short because everyone is supposed to have read everything beforehand. "This gives us more time for consultation and discussion. Over time, we have developed exemplary self-discipline to be able to meet very effectively. Our meetings last no more than two hours! The first hour is devoted to the state of play and reports.In the second hour, we discuss in more detail a planned strategic topic. 

"We also often do scenarios by asking ourselves 'what if' questions: What if some sponsors or partners suddenly withdraw, and if our director resigns? This is the only way to quickly deal with volatility and fluctuations in terms of budget, volunteering, etc. And every year we hold a day of strategic reflection on our purpose, our values and our approach.” 


An ideal interaction between the board of directors and the staff is based on real trust, maximum openness and mutual respect as much as possible. More than ever, frequent meetings and contacts between the  board president and the director are an essential prerequisite for a solid sounding board function and the efficient preparation and functioning of the board. 

The president provides support and advice while respecting the executive responsibility of the director. After all, it is he/she, and not the president, who has to develop the strategy and to prepare and implement the decisions of the board. 

"With the director of ToolBox, we build our moments of consultation around the annual calendar; from the preparation of the agenda to the execution of decisions, from the restitution of the work of the various committees to the planning of the annual strategic day or the general assembly. In addition, we are dare to discuss openly all kinds of opportunities and treats." 

However, the president and the director do not necessarily have to agree on everything. They are allowed to express their disagreement constructively. Without this close collaboration and good human contact, you will never have a solid foundation for a lasting and successful organization! 


"I wish my successor a lot of joy in exercising his/her mandate as President of ToolBox. With a lot of human warmth and deep human connections. And above all, may this idea always remain in his/her head and heart: People First, Content Second! 

Click here to apply or learn more about the job description