Like others, I’ve been working in the community and voluntary, the NGO sector, for many years.

This sector is a huge part of our community life here in NZ – “if in doubt, form a committee” was supposed to be the saying!! Now, there are nearly 100,000 formal “Not for Profit Institutions” in NZ, according to the nearly 10 year old work of Statistics NZ. A very large number of people are involved in leadership and in the active work of these groups – some with paid staff but many with none. Some doing highly skilled and technical professional work, others, engaging with a cross section of ordinary people who have committed themselves to the organisation’s goals.

This Saturday I’m spending the day with leaders of a national network of Church-based social service groups. On Sunday, we’re at a family picnic organised by another society we’re part of. Shortly, we have a meeting of a Trust focused on medical science research, and my paid job is with another charitable trust – with the ambitious aim of promoting, connecting and strengthening the whole community sector.

Common to all of these is the need for a group of people who exercise governance – a Board, a committee, a network. And the way this task is done varies enormously – from “efficient”, business-focused meetings, to meandering discussions where the “business” is interspersed with personal stories and catching up on family news.

The conventional wisdom is that “governance” should follow a model imported from the business world – where the “governors” are professional people skilled in technical aspects of running a business – especially legal and financial skills. Their job is to set policy, draw up a strategy, and then to monitor how that strategy and policy are being implemented. It’s important that these people don’t get caught up in the detailed operational work – that’s the realm of the “management”, and there should be a clear demarcation between “governance” and “management”. The opposite rules apply to management. They don’t set policy or draw up strategy – at most they give advice and provide information, based on their operational experience. Their job is to turn the governors’ broad plans into practical action.

Many of us don’t buy that as the way our sector can operate effectively. People join our Boards and committees precisely because they are passionately interested in the actual “work” of the organisations – not just the “strategy” or “policy”. They are mostly giving of their time and skill, without payment, because of that passion and interest. For many, they became involved because of their own experience or that of someone close to them. Being told it’s not their job to get involved in “operational” issues seems strange, since it’s precisely those things that they are interested in. On the other side, the operational people (very often an individual person working many more hours than they are being paid to do) are just as passionately committed to the overall purpose of the group as are the “governors”. Often they hold much more information about how and why the organisation was set up, and have important insights into how things need to change. They have a valid and valuable contribution to make about strategy and policy.

So – we can and should be working together as a sector on new paradigms for governance and management. It will have a strong focus on partnership. It was draw on the big picture and detailed operational skills of all the players. It must be efficient. It must help build a sense of team, rather than setting people against one another. It needs to make sense to both insiders and observers. But it will probably be different to the way a government department relates to the Government, or how a business firm works.

It will be of the sector, for the sector. And we have the chance to do it!!

Peter Glensor