Ever sat through a grindingly boring committee meeting, hijacked by someone off on a tangent? You probably volunteered for the committee because you care about what the organisation is trying to achieve, be it social justice, your children's sport or daycare, clean beaches, or kapa haka competitions. But you are never going to get those hours back.
An estimated one in 40 of us volunteers for a NGO board or community group committee. We are generous with our time and our skills. But how much of our energy is wasted in poorly chaired meetings, debating with other committee members who don't understand their roles and responsibilities, or talking about mindless, endless detail and not strategy?
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Research recently released by the Centre for Social Impact found some of our NGO boards and committees have world-class governance practices, but others do not. Some board and committee members do not have the basic governance skills needed to do their role well (such as being able to understand their organisation's financial reports) nor fully understand their responsibilities (for example, under the Health and Safety Act).
NGOs have important and ambitious missions. They help glue our communities together and provide much needed services, usually on the smell of an oily rag (that they have borrowed). To be successful, NGOs need clear strategies, strong networks of support and to be on top of all their legal and contractual requirements. This is what good governance is.
Ask anyone who has been on an NGO board or committee about their experience and they are likely to talk about how rewarding, frustrating and complicated the roles are. Ask anyone who is an experienced director about the most complex roles they have had and most will mention an NGO board role.
Yet we expect NGO board and committee members to take on such challenges with few
opportunities for training and development and limited forums to share best practice. We expect someone to take on the chair role and run effective meetings, again, usually without any support or training.
So a group of like-minded leaders have come together to develop the first National Strategy for NGO Governance. Work on the strategy will begin in earnest next week following an event, along with a call out for those who are interested to get involved.
Six areas have been identified as key opportunities to develop governance practice in the NGO sector, including a focus on ensuring board or committee members have the basic governance skills and board meetings are effective.
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There are things we can all do to support. We can challenge our assumptions about NGO governance and its value. When we think of high-flying board directors, we usually think about those on the boards of Air NZ, Fonterra or the like. Being on a stock-exchange listed board can be seen as the pinnacle of a governance career. Of course, these board roles are important, but are they really more important than those governing Plunket, St John or your local kohanga reo in terms of the impact made on our lives and communities?
Please think about what role you could play governing an NGO or group in your local community. You will have many skills that are much needed and, if you are not already, you could be part of a board or committee that makes a substantial impact on the lives of many.
As you step up into your new board or committee role, you will be joining tens of thousands of others across New Zealand who give so generously of their time and we will be working hard to make sure you get the support you need to do the best job possible.
• Jo Cribb is a senior associate of the Centre for Social Impact. She is the author of the recently released research report "What is the Future for NGO Governance?" and project lead for the National Strategy for NGO and Community Governance.