Two delegates from the New Zealand Association Resource Centre participated in the Better Boards Conference held in the spectacular Adelaide Convention Centre. Held during the first week of August, the event was memorable and impressive in every respect, most of which due to superb organisation by a dedicated team from Victoria. What set it apart from other voluntary sector gatherings was its total devotion to governance with a strong representation of board member.

Conference chairman Michael Goldsworthy set the tone in his opening remarks that risk adversity was no longer appropriate in the voluntary sector. He remarked that social enterprise, strategic focus and the right mix of personality types determine different ways of operating in the new environment with both executive and non-executive directors. He mentioned social impact statements and a less frequent quarterly to half-yearly meeting pattern with other involving activities in between as the new norm.  This called for a corporate services orientation with partnerships and competitor interaction, knowledge and analysis.

He encouraged directors to get out of the boardroom to engage directly with stakeholders and to attend conferences as means of engagement.

Steve Mav, Chief Executive Officer of the Gumala (meaning all together) Aboriginal Corporation in Northern Western Australia presented an inspiring case study. He defined culture as the way you do or do not cope with change. He also portrayed how three tribes (comprising twelve language groups) have taken advantage of a native title settlement to achieve transformational change with the delivery of community services in partnership with a major mining company.
Another memorable presentation was from consultant Michael Hogan, who defined brand as the result of the promises you keep and the look, feel and language accompanying it. He described business processes as involving everybody in the open.  He quoted Patagonia in its definition of profit for social purpose as the beating heart and questioned how often it is used as a deliberate part of the discussion around the board table. He emphasised that values were non-negotiable and challenged his audience to list their organisation’s values in one sentence, putting emphasis on the place of diversity, inclusiveness and collaboration.
RIP to non-profit membership reminded us that Australia lacks the charitable trust form of incorporation without the need for a membership base. Similar to New Zealand there has been talk of mergers and collaboration with claims of 45% of respondents considering close alliances, but no reported mergers. It was recognised that attempts to drive out small players in a move to a more mature industry with greater performance certainties are difficult to achieve in practice, considering the effectiveness of small community organisations in widely dispersed settlements in a large country.
In summary it made us aware of the real reasons for voluntary governance and importance of periodic board evaluation based on a skills matrix. You need to know what you govern and have a duty to observe discretion at all times. In recruiting for the board, first ask the prospect why  What is his or her basic motivation? Matching passion with professionalism calls for induction and training with provision to periodically reenergise the board.  To be effective in its purpose voluntary governance boards should not function as a representative council.  Failure to plan for the future was also mentioned as was insufficient ethnic and female participation at 30% in governance. In our delegates’ opinion it was a good conference and very much worth the effort and expense. With Auckland figuring in the organisers’ thinking for next year, let’s keep fingers crossed.

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