Fly like an eagle

Map consulting group founder and director Lea Corbett challenges not for profits to fly like an eagle and maintain momentum for reform with the help of their board.

From Pro Bono Australia – News, 13 August 2019

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

Remember this song by the Steve Miller Band, released in 1976? No? How about the version by Seal in 1996? 

The message of the song is a good one and more relevant than ever – we are running out of time to solve the big problems of the world so we should be bold and brave and fly!

Solving the big problems of the world is nowhere more important than at the board tables of community and social service organisations. And there is no time like the present to re-think your strategy.

Following the recent visit to Melbourne by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, I have been reflecting on whether we need a greater sense of urgency in our work to strengthen communities and assist the most vulnerable. I am not suggesting anyone is being complacent but I do question the pace of change. What can we do to increase the urgency with which we tackle social issues and achieve greater positive social impact sooner? 

Community and social service organisations are already over-stretched and under-resourced, which makes doing more extremely difficult, right? Even if they weren’t, governments seem neither able, nor willing, to move fast on a wide range of social and environmental fronts all at once. 

Academic and former political adviser Nicholas Reece also reflected on the New Zealand prime minister’s visit in July and her speech at the Melbourne Town Hall. Like many the world over, Mr Reece was clearly impressed by the PM’s passion and energy for reform, but points out that, unlike Australia, New Zealand has a long history of outstanding policy innovation and leadership.

He writes, “Ultimately, Australia’s future wellbeing depends on its political system rediscovering its reform mojo.” 

I couldn’t agree more. Then again, perhaps we all need to rediscover our reform mojo. 

Not-for-profit organisations and their boards have been on quite a journey since the ACNC was established in 2012, the advent of data on the level of public trust in NFPs, and new funding and service models such as the NDIS. There’s also been greater public and political scrutiny, including through a number of royal commissions. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if boards have tended on the side of caution and adopted a more risk averse stance in response to these tumultuous changes. The oversight of compliance with the law and risk management, as well as public accountability and greater transparency are afterall a vital part of the board’s role. 

But it’s also the board’s role to craft and regularly review the strategy to achieve the organisation’s mission, and ensure that scarce resources are used wisely to achieve maximum value for clients. 

Strategic planning should be about the big (hairy and audacious) goals and the organisation’s end game. It should be about innovation in what you do and how you do it. And, to help keep strategy and innovation on the agenda you will need the active support of a board member or two with strategic expertise and a reasonable dose of courage.

The AICD’s 2018 NFP Governance and Performance survey revealed that boards and executives have different views about who is responsible for driving innovation in the organisation. In my experience you need both. By giving priority to monitoring, evaluation, innovation and strategy you build a culture oriented to continuous improvement and, when the time is right, able to embrace reinvention. 

Challenging the status quo inside the organisation while at the same time challenging inequality and injustice outside the organisation is exhausting – but no less essential. So, have you got the right balance of competencies on your board to identify, assess and nurture new ideas and approaches? Is your board playing its part in regularly re-thinking strategy? If not, are you wasting time and an opportunity to fly? 

In the same vein, diversity on boards and in workplaces has been positively associated with higher performance and “reform mojo” – a greater willingness to innovate. 

However, the majority of NFPs (77 per cent according to one survey) recruit their new board members via personal referrals/word of mouth. In addition, the vast majority of NFP board members may have many years’ experience as NFP non-executive directors but most have little experience of for-profit boards. In fact, 55 per cent of NFP directors have absolutely no experience as non-executive directors of for-profits. 

We do not have a comprehensive picture of the make-up of boards in the not-for-profit sector, and diversity may be greater than first appears. But these characteristics suggest that the composition of NFP boards could benefit from a more diverse mix of members. A wider range of people with different backgrounds, skill sets and perspectives will help build a culture of innovation and hopefully move you forward faster. I am pretty sure the rewards will outweigh any risks you perceive in making this change.

As hard as it is to maintain a sense of urgency in our efforts to make the world a better place, there are ways to regularly reinvigorate your organisation. Work on the blockages wherever they may be. Think about bringing in new perspectives and skills to your board to boost your reform mojo. Because seeking more effective ways to achieve your mission is not optional. Be brave and fly.

About the author: Lea Corbett is the founder and director of Map consulting group – mature age professionals who consult to NFPs on a capped fee basis. Lea has spent more than 20 years as a public policy analyst and executive working in the Australian and Victorian governments and in management consulting. She has also worked with women’s, disability and community legal NFPs, consulted to NFPs and served on NFP and government boards.

Lea Corbett

Lea Corbett  |  @ProBonoNewsLea Corbett is the founder and director of Map consulting group.

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