Food for thought

Food for thought

As a senior minister in the Parliament of Victoria, the Hon Mary Delahunty GAICD honed the kinds of skills that would be welcome in any boardroom. But, as a director of three not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, she felt there was still more to learn.

“There are certainly challenges that are specific to the sector and I think a lot of people are surprised by the breadth of the demand on directors and the amount of work involved,” she says. “There is an element of learning on the job but working effectively in that environment requires specific expertise which I continue to seek through ongoing professional development. This has included two Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) courses – one for chairmen a few years ago and one for directors, for which I received a scholarship last year.”

The AICD runs three courses tailored to the NFP sector. Governance Foundations covers basic compliance and performance for newly appointed directors and anyone considering a directorship; Advanced Not-for-Profit Governance provides more experienced directors with insight into strategic and cultural issues; and The Role of the Not-for-Profit Chair offers an in-depth analysis of the chair’s accountabilities and boardroom relationships.

Since 2011, The Perpetual Foundation and JS Love Trust have been funding the Australian Scholarships Foundation (ASF) to provide scholarships for chairs and directors of NFPs to attend one of the courses. So far, 1,695 people have benefited from the program.

 “Perpetual is one of the largest managers of charitable wealth in Australia and one of our key objectives is to improve the overall level of leadership, governance, capability and accountability in the NFP sector,” says Caitriona Fay, national manager philanthropy at Perpetual Private. “These scholarships are a critical resource to ensure NFP board members are supporting their organisations and the communities they serve.”

Unique challenges

Delahunty has found herself working with organisations in transition. “As a director of the National Library of Australia, I’m helping to oversee the process of building an entire digital library as a complement to the physical library,” she says. “And, of course, funding challenges are driving most NFPs to seek out a more sustainable business model. I believe that necessity has made the NFP sector in general the most nimble and innovative, but not all organisations are responding in the right strategic way. Transition requires careful stewardship from the board – directors must work closely with management and think strategically about the significant changes. The AICD courses can help directors to understand the strategic pressures on their organisation at this time, and I think this is invaluable.”

The courses can also help board members to negotiate challenges associated with boardroom composition. “In a for-profit organisation you expect to be able to create a board with an appropriate balance of skills and experience, but this isn’t always the case in an NFP,” Delahunty continues. “Some directors could be there for historical reasons – a reflection of the way the organisation has developed. And, as most NFPs need to raise money from various people and organisations, others might be there for their financial connections. The AICD courses teach breadth of thinking and also places you in another director’s shoes, which is critical for cohesive board decision-making in this environment.”

Alecia Rathbone MAICD is a certified practising accountant, and corporate governance was included in her studies. This provided a good foundation for her work on the board of YWCA Victoria but, when she also took on the role of treasurer, she decided to apply for a scholarship for the Advanced Directors course.

“I wanted to be sure my skills were current and I was also looking for information about duties and regulation that apply specifically to directors in the NFP sector,” she says.

“The course covered that and I particularly liked the fact that the facilitators were very experienced and able to work through practical, real-life examples and case studies with the group. The participants were also encouraged to share their experiences and, as the Chatham House rule applied, people felt comfortable about speaking freely.”

Balanced discussion

Gerlinde Scholz MAICD completed the Governance Foundations course in 2011 in preparation for her first NFP directorship, and the advanced program in 2012 when she joined the board of FMC Mediation and Counselling Victoria. She had been chair of the FMC board for three months when she received a scholarship for the chair’s course.

“I’m always on the lookout for professional development opportunities and I was particularly interested in the chair’s course because it was so timely and because I was impressed by the standard of the other programs,” she says.

“I had also been impressed by the presenter, John Hart, when I heard him speak at an evening session organised by the AICD. He lived up to his promise – he carried the whole day and was really terrific at drawing out different perspectives from people in various organisations.”

The participants reflected the diversity of the sector and the majority were chairs or chairs-in-waiting. “I found it very helpful to talk to people who brought a different perspective to challenges similar to the ones I face,” Scholz continues.

“For example, the thing that surprised me most when I was elected to chair the board was the additional time I needed to commit to the job. I had imagined that it might be double that I’d committed as director but it turned out to be even more demanding, especially at the beginning.

“The discussions drew out very well that, theoretically, and if you’re that way inclined, you could end up with a quite unmanageable workload – especially as you’re likely to be a volunteer with a day job to juggle as well. We talked about the importance of role clarity, knowing where the boundaries lie and also how to communicate that effectively. Sometimes you just have to note items for information and resist the temptation to delve into a lot of detail or stray into managing. This is particularly important if, like me, you have a background in NFP executive management,” Scholz adds.

Scholz appreciated that the time was used effectively with a good balance between teaching and discussion.

“We were provided with a wealth of material as handouts before the course and it was assumed that we had read and digested that – we didn’t spend time with the expert facilitator rehashing things that we could easily do on our own,” she says. “I’ve found this to be the case at all of the other AICD events I’ve attended and I think this is a really good aspect of the programs.”

She believes that even experienced chairs could benefit from the course. “The NFP landscape is constantly changing so there is always something new to learn, especially through discussion with other people from the sector,” she says.

“But, of course, a lot depends on how much you’re prepared to put in – the more curious you are, and the more willing to engage, the more you will gain.” ■