It was during the second round of working from home that Ivan Ingram and his colleagues at the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute really felt the strain of COVID-19. The team had been back at work after a four-month shutdown and then, in July, two Queensland women tested positive to the virus after travelling to Melbourne, sparking new public health alerts and a shift back to remote working arrangements.
“We had a taste of engagement in person, followed by more disengagement and separation. That was the worst part of it,” says Ingram, COO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute (AIGI). Ingram, who also chairs the Queensland Law Society’s First Nations Legal Policy Committee and is a director of Digi Youth Arts, says he found the crisis “incredibly challenging”.
Digi Youth Arts, which supports Indigenous young people in all forms of artistic expression, had in March “just come out of a really excruciating period of learning around finances”. In response, it had recruited an accountant to the board and, with that behind them, were looking ahead to the launch of a full year’s program of in-person performances and projects.
But as the threat of COVID-19 loomed ever larger, Ingram was at Perth Airport for a flight to Brisbane when he called a meeting of the volunteer board.
“We came at it from the lens that Indigenous people are vulnerable people generally… and we have the intersectionality of young people, young women, Indigenous communities and a vulnerable artistic sector as well,” he explains. “So we really put that front of mind and said we would make all of our decisions in the best interests of our young people.
If anything puts our young people and communities at risk, we don’t do it.”
A COVID-19 committee was convened to allow three of Digi Youth Arts’ seven board members to address urgent issues, while funding bodies agreed that the organisation should repurpose grant monies to deliver outcomes more suited to the changed conditions. Similarly, the AIGI, which previously undertook much of its work in the community, adjusted its programs, with masterclasses placed on hold and an in-person speaker series moved online.
“Being able to do this in a much more flexible way has opened up a lot of opportunities for us, in the sense that we’ve had international guest speakers who we have been able to put in front of an Australian audience,” says Ingram.
But he notes that it hasn’t always been appropriate or possible to do things virtually in some remote areas. “You won’t get the same bandwidth if you’re Zooming into Doomadgee [as opposed to Sydney].”
Changing the way the organisation does business has expanded the possibilities; AIGI, for instance, has doubled in size. “We’ve put attention into projects that we haven’t been able to tap into before because of a want of resources,” says Ingram.
“For Indigenous people, when they formalise a corporate entity, it’s because there is a greater need and a purpose; for example, addressing the educational needs of the community,” he adds.
“That kind of mindset creates a different type of governing structure and model so that everyone is held to a particular account — not just to the organisation, but also to the community.”
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of diversity on boards, says Ingram, not just in terms of skill sets, but also considerations such as gender and age diversity and LGBTI+ representation. He has fielded several enquiries from entities seeking to recruit him to their boards because they have a clientele or service-delivery base with a focus on these demographics.
“Coming out of COVID-19, these entities realised that they struggled to effectively govern through that period because of a particular demographic they’ve had on their boards,” he says. “Although they were able to adapt because they had the CEO model with a full complement of staff, they’re reporting a disjunct between the board’s ability to adapt and the organisation itself.”
Ingram doubts we’ll ever “snap back” to the way things were before, adding that enhanced integration and comfort with technology has reduced business costs and increases the reach, ability and effectiveness of people’s time.
“I think the new normal, post-COVID environment will never be the same as before and nor should it be,” he says. “The way we are doing things now, where we’ve prioritised staff wellbeing, is an approach that needs to stay.”