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The NZAF Board: Sticking to its knitting

Thu 24 Nov 2005 In: HIV

NZAF deputy board chair Jeremy Lambert is taking his first post-AGM interview from a sick bed, but it's nothing to do with the events of Saturday's meeting – rather a badly-timed case of food poisoning. How are the other board members shaping up, though, I asked. Were they traumatised enough by the weekend's semi-roasting to do as former Foundation executive director Warren Lindberg suggested, and get out of the kitchen? "I wouldn't say there weren't board members who weren't traumatised," he laughs. "But certainly not to the point where they're offering their resignation. At all times, it's been important for us to think outside of our own personal egos, and I know that I remain on the board because I believe that I can make a contribution. If I somehow felt that the way I was operating or behaving was somehow not in the best interests of the organisation, I would resign. And I actually made that clear to staff in the last staff hui." The board held a post-mortem meeting on Sunday, where they reflected on the salient points raised by members at the sometimes-heated AGM. "I think one of the points that came out quite strongly for us is that we need to not allow ourselves as a board to be distracted from what we believe are really the key issues," Lambert says. What are the key issues? "The key issues for us, as an organisation, are around the recent spike in 2005 with 44 MSM being identified as having HIV. We have the term sticking to our knitting – that really is our knitting. Although coming out of the vote on Saturday were recommendations from our membership around things like the Treaty, at the end of the day, our reason for being is actually around HIV and AIDS, and that was something that came through quite strongly for us, that we can't allow ourselves as a board to be distracted from some of those bigger issues." Lambert says the mood of Saturday's meeting was a reflection of the frustration generated both within the Foundation's membership and staff over the last six months. "To a large degree, the board accepts some of the responsibility for that because of the poor process around the initial consultation process," he says. "I take responsibility for this as a member of the board, I think we have allowed ourselves to be distracted away from the epidemic itself." The board will continue to work towards assembling a working party to address the problems with the Foundation's constitution, but is keen to stress that they do have priorities – the MSM epidemic, and medical support for people living with HIV. Lambert acknowledges that Saturday's meeting was a good opportunity for the board to hear directly from members. But what about staff? "I think it's an area that we could probably do better. I have to say, as with most governance organisations, our principal relationship is with the executive director, and so we do rely upon Rachael [LeMesurier] a lot to assist us with our communication with staff." Concerns were raised at the AGM that the board has been deficient in its communications with staff, in particular the absence of several board members from a recent staff hui. Lambert says the level of a trustee's commitment to the organisation cannot be judged on their visibility. "To a certain degree, there needs to be a little bit more understanding that we are dealing with busy people. That said, when we put ourselves forward to be trustees of this organisation, we do so knowing that there'll be a certain time commitment," he says. "The way we balance the reality of people's professional lives and the expectations of trustees and their role is that quite often we will allocate roles and responsibilities to certain board members. While it would have been ideal to have all board members at that staff hui, I think at the same time we need to be quite realistic about people's time, and at the same time to communicate better as a board as to why certain board members are there and not others." The staff hui was, to an extent, the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. The communications breakdown had begun with the board's announcement of its 50% Maori board member proposal, which staff had had no knowledge of beforehand. NZAF executive director Rachael LeMesurier said at the AGM that she felt partially responsible for the breakdown in communications, and according to Lambert, the board's proposal would not have been a surprise to her. LeMesurier sits in on all board meetings, and Lambert recalls discussions around the Foundation's Treaty obligations taking place ever since he joined the board, back in November 2004. When it comes to the specific resolution that was eventually announced, a proposal that would set aside at least 50% of the board seats for Maori, this was discussed in at least two board meetings, although Lambert is unsure of the exact details now. With regards to allegations that the proposal was originally an announcement, Lambert says he wasn't present at the final meeting where the motion was passed. It's the second time in six months that a deputy board chair has been delegated media responsibilities following a controversy. In July, former chair Clive Aspin left then-deputy Simon Robb carrying the can over the fallout from the 50% Maori proposal when he left for an overseas conference. By the time Aspin returned to face the music himself, the situation had escalated to a point where he had to step down. Now, Robb finds himself in a similar situation. He has not spoken to the media since an angry address to the AGM on Saturday, in which he expressed frustration at enduring what he called five months of professional humiliation and misquotes. He missed a scheduled interview with on Monday morning, but word came through that Lambert would be happy to talk Tuesday. Will Lambert now be the board's permanent public face? "We are realising that there's a lot of work that's going to be involved in terms of the board over the next few months," he says. "We have made a big ask of Simon, in terms of assisting us with putting together the working party, and so because of my experience in communications, I have been asked to take over that delegation for the time being." Was the board happy with how Simon fronted for it at the meeting? "I think Simon's response was the build up of six months of personal attacks, essentially, and that's why we saw what we did on Saturday," he says. "I think when you sit in a meeting and you're having people who are criticising not just your governance ability but your professional ability as well, that can be quite taxing. I think people have to remember that Simon and myself, and other members of the board, have faced the sort of personal attacks that I certainly have not seen before when I've been in a governance role, and whilst I can accept that, to a certain degree, we're somewhat the authors of our own demise around that, I do think there were members there who said to us that we needed to stop apologising and get on with leading the organisation." During the AGM there was much talk by the board of not forgetting "other" communities affected by HIV, of not being exclusive. But what are we to make of Robb's key example, the straight man who felt he couldn't contact the Foundation for support because it was gay? NZAF communications co-ordinator Steve Attwood was prevented during the meeting from telling members the full story behind this – Robb silenced him twice. The truth behind this story? The man in question did contact the Foundation, and did set up a support group for HIV+ heterosexual men as a result. With the Foundation's help. Is this the behaviour of an exclusive organisation? Lambert himself notes that the Foundation is currently delivering an effective programme for Maori MSM, and for largely heterosexual African migrants. So what was Robb talking about? "I think Simon's comment is, and where he does receive the support of the board, is that what we can't afford to do is create a perception. It's important that we talk about that word 'perception' and not 'reality', that we are so gay that it's at the expense of everybody else." But what evidence exists to suggest that is happening? "I don't know," he says. "That's a question that we're asking currently of our researchers within the organisation – how exactly do we get that sort of information, because it's largely just anecdotal at the moment, and so that's a problem that we're going to have to address, and that's a priority for the board at the moment." The anecdotal evidence is slim at best. Lambert says the board is aware of two examples that have led them to be concerned about Foundation's exclusiveness. One is a heterosexual man. The other is a heterosexual woman. One they have become aware of through the media. The other was brought to their attention by executive director Rachael LeMesurier. Presuming the media example is the heterosexual man that Robb misleadingly cited at the AGM, and we've possibly reduced the board's worries over exclusiveness to the concerns of one single person. Does the board feel, after Saturday's meeting, that it is representative of the MSM community? "No," says Lambert. "But we're not a representative board. We weren't selected to be representative." Is that an issue? "I think it is an issue that we're going to have to resolve through this working party and through the constitution because I think that is where we sort of slightly get a little bit confused when we talk about being a community-based organisation. I think when you say those words, there is an expectation that somehow you would be representative. Whereas, we're not a representative board, and we weren't selected on that basis." That said, five of the six board members are MSM, and Lambert says he doesn't see being gay as a problem, either personally, or for the AIDS Foundation. "I think it's about reconciling the expectations of our members, and what it means to be part of a community-based organisation against where modern governance practice is leading, which is around having governors who are selected on the basis of skill, rather than being representative of the community," he continues. Lambert says there's definitely a conflict brewing with regard to the issue of the board being representative, versus a board that possesses the required skills. He says he is surprised that many aspects of the current constitution, which was formulated and consulted on by members long before he joined the board, do not seem to be widely understood by members. "I think it's largely about us having a dialogue, and making sure that expectations of our members and what the reality is of the constitution that we're operating under being clearly outlined." And in due course, this will be happening. But as for now – it's back to the knitting. "I think the AGM posed a series of challenges for us as a board, and we're largely being asked to consider quite carefully the way that we move on from here. What I would like to say is, whilst the remit associated with the working party is important, and we will be making ground on that over the next few months, that actually this board is extremely keen to be addressing the issues around the latest increase in MSM infections, and also looking at how we can improve, in particular, medical support for people who are living with HIV in New Zealand at the moment. It's really a message around priorities for this board, and the fact that we are determined to get some movement in those first two areas immediately." Chris Banks - 24th November 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Thursday, 24th November 2005 - 12:00pm

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