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Mentoring and coaching NFP boards: the power of helpful relationships

posted 7 Mar 2018, 16:23 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 26 Mar 2018, 16:47 ]

The call came out of the blue.  A skilled and experienced colleague, Dr Jennie Churchill GAICD, had just taken over as Acting Executive Officer for a national NGO whose mission had a focus on animal and human welfare and safety in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.  The former, much loved Executive Officer she replaced had died suddenly in a tragic accident.  This had seen the organisation lurch towards an existential crisis.  Her job was to get the organisation back on an even keel or close it down.  To this end, a weekend board meeting had been organised at a venue outside Melbourne.  Directors would fly in from across Australia.  Would I attend and facilitate?  The work would be hard, the hours long, the pay non-existent but they’d cover my travel.

Thus, began my journey with the ungainly titled “Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities, known formally around the traps as “AMRRIC” and in the bush as “The Dog Mob”.  Over that first weekend the board and Jennie Churchill, the organisation’s only employee, came up with a set of nine principles which would underpin the future focus and direction of AMRRIC.  Jennie and I moved quickly to write a strategic and business plan.  Then, in a frantic flurry of grant writing, fundraising and relationship building that is all too familiar to mission-driven not-for-profits (NFP) and non-government organisations (NGOs), a platform for the future was established.  New staff were hired, new board members appointed, services expanded.  At this point I would normally have moved on but I stayed involved.  Several years back I was made a Life Member of AMRRIC at their international conference in Darwin.  It was one of the highpoints of my life.  Ten years on from that original crisis meeting AMRRIC receives core funding from the Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and is in regular receipt of other national State and Territory project and grant funding. It has even received funding from prestigious international NGOs.  The issues it addresses, in respectful partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other stakeholders – largely dog health and welfare and the relationship between dog health and human health in remote communities – continue to be important in ways that are too complex to explain here

At every level of my being I believe deeply that NFPs and NGOs matter.  Large and small, they are a backbone of civil society.  The issues they deal with and take responsibility for are at times awe inspiring.  If you believe I am exaggerating, try setting up a safe and professional veterinary hospital once a year in a remote community in northern Australia.  Logistics rise to a high level of complexity when roads are cut off for months in the Wet, when food arrives on a barge once or twice a week, where there are no anaesthetic machines, no drugs, no veterinary nurses and no veterinarians for hundreds of kilometres! 

In general, if not in every case, NFP work is important work.  As governance professionals and experienced directors, we do well to roll up our sleeves, if we don’t already, and get in and help.  Often, the reality is that payment will be modest at best and nothing at all, in the worst scenario.  In the face of this spectacularly unattractive value proposition, my vision is to see more of governance and advisory colleagues take up the challenge of creating a long term, sustainable pro bono portfolio.  We need a growing army of committed governance experts who will “pick and stick” with NGOs and NFPs and stay the course not for weeks or months but for years. 

While avoiding the traps of Shadow Directorship – I never get involved in operational decision-making - I have now mentored several NFPs and NGOs across a range of sectors in health, human services and the arts.  Experience has led me to identify a range of areas where help is of use.

·         Support, mentoring and advice for Chairs and CEOs – The Chairs of NGOs and NFPs are typically appointed for one of two reasons.  Firstly, because they have deep expertise or interest aligned with the mission or purpose of the organisation while often lacking substantive governance skills.  Secondly, because they possess valuable leadership or other expertise not related to the mission.  Such folk then pick up sector knowledge along the way.  For the reasons outlined above, some Chairs have outside networks they can draw on in their leadership role, others don’t.  Similarly, CEOs and Executive Officers are often unable to afford high level coaching or training.  Non-judgemental, independent, confidential advice and support is invaluable.

·         Strategy and alignment – I have lost count of how many strategy and planning processes I have run for NGOs and NFPs.  I love the work and find it rewarding.  I can do it quickly.  Again, many not for profits cannot afford big end of town advisors who, even if they donate their time, sometimes miss the nuance and sensitivity required to be effective in strange and unfamiliar environs.  In addition, CEOs and staff have multiples roles in smaller organisations and even if they have the skills to run a planning process, they may not have the “bandwidth”.  Assistance is called for.

·         Compliance and board processes –the relationship between directors and management can be blurred and thus actually, or potentially, fraught, even in large NGOs.  Voluntary directors may bring passion and skill to the table but may have limited awareness of good governance process let alone company or associations’ law.  Boards often need assistance to firm up their governance processes, put in place sound practices and even conduct self-evaluations.  My firm now offers access to our on-line board self-evaluation tools free or at subsidised cost to boards we work with.  For some directors, such encounters offer their first experience with systematic, deep self-reflection on their governance role.

·         Education and development –the cost of sending even one person per year to the AICD Company Directors course is prohibitive to many organisations.  Yet there are other ways to do director education.  I often distribute short governance articles to boards, chairs and CEOs and am refreshingly surprised that they read them!  Some of the boards I mentor now hold a board self-review each year and go on to discuss an article or think piece they have all read beforehand. Even though many NFP directors are “amateur”, in that they do not have more than one or two unpaid director roles, most do not want to be amateur in their approach, a commitment I applaud.

One of my consulting mentors, a man I never met by the name of Professor Ed Schein, a long-term Professor at MIT, stated that the core principle of consulting is “Always try to be helpful”.  I have attempted to apply this maxim to my professional life both paid and unpaid.  When the intent is to be helpful, and where we are careful with boundaries and wittingly or unwittingly doing a director or manager’s role for them, it is unlikely that a mentor/coach like myself will be seen as a shadow director.  Being helpful means just that: being an asset, not a liability in any situation we find ourselves in.

There is a final, secondary outcome of more governance professionals and directors taking on long term, pro bono work with NFPs: the more volunteer directors who encounter, understand and implement good governance practice, the better governed our society will be.  Over time, this outcome could be the most valuable of all for the well-being of our nation.

Philip Pogson FAICD

Director, The Leading Partnership Pty Ltd

February 2018