Community directors highlight the big issues at national conference

Posted on 14 Jun 2021

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Not-for-profit board members want greater recognition of their sector and the unique challenges they face. That was the consensus when chairs, CEOs and other community sector leaders from across the country gathered for the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) “Member Experience” at the recent national Communities in Control conference in Melbourne.

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The gathering of hundreds of community leaders at the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne was a prime opportunity for board members to gather and discuss their biggest challenges. Pictures: Penny Stephens.

The networking event on Tuesday, May 18, came days before Greater Melbourne was isolated in its fourth lockdown following a COVID-19 outbreak, which once again underlined the volatile times faced by community organisations already feeling the strain.

Those in the VIP room included:

  • Representatives from ICDA’s advisory body, the Community Directors Council
  • Diploma of Governance students and alumni
  • ICDA trainers and staff
  • Not-for-profit directors and senior staff from around Australia.

They joined a lively discussion hosted by council chair, inaugural ACNC commissioner and adjunct professor Susan Pascoe AM, while ICDA’s director of learning and education, Lisa Jennings, emceed the event.

Ms Pascoe said the gathering was chance for community directors to discuss challenges with their peers, especially for delegates who had travelled from rural and regional areas.

Hot topics for directors included:

  • The tension experienced within many groups that recruit directors with outside experience, often from the private sector in areas such as law and accounting, while there was insufficient value attributed to third sector experience
  • A tendency for funders and organisations to be too risk averse, partly in response to government expectations
  • Funding pressures, workplace pressure and unnecessary red tape burdens
  • The need for “transformation” in the sector.
Watch now: Susan Pascoe AM sums up some of the key issues raised by community directors at the networking event.

Ms Pascoe said veteran royal commissioner Robert Fitzgerald’s keynote speech at the conference about the need for sector reform – delivered minutes before the networking event – struck a chord with members.

“Robert Fitzgerald, as we know, chaired the 2010 Productivity Commission inquiry into the not-for-profit sector. And he did give a summary of the key reform areas, including those that have been realised, such as regulatory reform, with the creation of the ACNC. But also, areas where we haven't really seen the progress that we want, such as in IT, such as investment in the sector, such as funding certainty. I think that was reflected in some of the comments that the directors made.”

Ms Pascoe told members attending that while ICDA was dedicated to good governance, its success relied on “people like you … having the personal commitment and the values to make it happen”.

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Staff and leaders from the Institute of Community Directors Australia hosted a networking event for ICDA members at Communities in Control (L-R): Lisa Jennings, Grace Neville, Jon Staley, Susan Pascoe, Angela Andrews, Emily Moore and Alan Matic.

Risk-averse business bias proves a pinch point for NFPs

With the preamble over, not-for-profit leaders dove right into the big issues.

Liz Thomas, CEO of Wayss – which provides homeless and domestic violence support in Melbourne’s southern suburbs – was among those to raise concerns about an increasing tendency for groups to recruit people from “risk averse” backgrounds in law and accountancy to sit on NFP boards, despite lacking experience in the sector.

“Having worked on both sides of the sector, I find there’s a trend for people to think we need more private sector influence in our sector. I don't see the private sector saying: ‘We must get someone with community services experience on our boards.’”

She quickly won agreement in the room that organisations needed to build on their confidence in their position as a “unique industry on our own”.

Anne Marie Collins, the president of the Australian Association of Psychologists Inc (AAPI), said the trend to recruit profit-sector professionals coincided with the rise of "manifestly risk averse" contracts, which appeared connected to a desire for private sector directors with that mindset.

In a related matter, Margaret Tipper of the Western Sydney Regional Information and Research Service (WESTIR) said competitive tenders for services – where NFPs were forced to pitch for existing contracts – often failed to account for the outcomes and achievements of those existing providers. Yet ironically, new tenderers were quick to seek out those same experienced service providers in an attempt to use them as cheaper subcontractors, or for seeking the local knowledge they lacked.

Pablo Alfredo Gimenez of the Centre for Participation in western Victoria and a member of the Community Directors Council said organisations could still gain from the “influx” of management consultants and those with similar backgrounds wanting to join the sector.

Mr Gimenez said their skills were welcome, but said the key was an induction process that enabled new board directors to learn more about community, including the chance “to meet people with lived experience”.

His centre had had success in training those industry professionals to become mentors for smaller community groups and he stressed that transition “is up to us”.

Fellow council member, strategist, facilitator and arts leader Sheena Boughen – most famously known for her 10-year role as chair of Bermagui’s Four Winds Festival – suggested creative thinking could help induct new directors to understand risk, by exposing groups to “different kinds of people”.

“One of my small successes with inductions for boards when I was chair was to bring in musicians – and composers particularly – who never knew if an audience would like their work. So, the risk they took and how they thought about designing a piece of work, getting people to support it, playing it, performing and reviewing it, was such a different experience for a board that was thinking about what they needed to do well, and what did risk mean.”

Sector’s resilience tested, groups may turn to state/territory funders

Ms Tipper also highlighted the burnout being faced in the sector, pointing to an emerging problem of performance management, stress claims and a reluctance to return to the office by workers left exhausted by the demands of the pandemic and other natural disasters over the last few years.

“People are very, very tired,” she warned.

In light of the pressure on NFPs, Volunteer West’s Thu-Trang Tran queried the lack of funding response to address such issues, despite decades of pressure on governments to increase budgets to community organisations.

Ms Trang said evidence of the value of the sector had been extensively demonstrated in the past and highlighted again during the pandemic. Yet budgets – and the 2021 federal budget in particular – had failed to deliver.

In response, Ms Pascoe reflected on the effect of COVID-19, saying it had demonstrated the “limitations” of the Federal Government while simultaneously highlighting the capabilities of the states, particularly in the areas of health and human services.

As she pointed out, often the Commonwealth was “looking for the states and territories to manage” those areas, noting state and territory governments were typically “kinder” to the community sector, including those with agendas dealing with issues such as climate change.

“Maybe that’s where we have to focus our energies,” Ms Pascoe said.

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The gathering was a rare opportunity for community directors to discuss challenges with their peers. The networking session was hosted by both the Community Directors Council chair Susan Pascoe and ICDA’s director of learning and education, Lisa Jennings.

Event puts networking high on the ICDA agenda

In one of the first networking opportunities for ICDA since the advent of the pandemic, there was no shortage of ideas generated and connections made.

Ms Colins said the event “was a great opportunity to discuss trends” and that it, as well as the conference, meant she “felt reenergised in the knowledge there is a massive community sector who are aware and care about the values of democracy, diversity and unity which are the AAPI values”.

Ms Pascoe said such events and the chance to share notes were “incredibly important” for organisations wanting to build credibility for themselves, their communities and the not-for-profit sector as a whole.

“Thank you for assembling, fellow governance nerds,” Ms Pascoe quipped.

Afterwards, Ms Pascoe said directors had been swift to take advantage of the rare opportunity.

We really needed only to introduce ourselves and then the microphone went quickly around the room, because they were so many issues,” Ms Pascoe said.

Following the success of the event, ICDA, with advice from the Community Directors Council, is looking at more opportunities for members to meet, learn and network in the coming months.

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