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NZAF Board: A process of rebirth and review

Thu 3 Aug 2006 In: HIV

Last October's Annual General Meeting of the NZ AIDS Foundation Trust board was a function few attending would ever want to see repeated. Following months of denying that there was a fundamental schism between the Board and the Foundation's members, and even between the Board and its own workers, the board members finally sat down at the big table to be implored, harangued and lectured about their incompetence. At issue were a series of deeply controversial proposals, presented as decisions. Such as setting aside half the seats on the board for Maori. And two seats for people with HIV. There were accusations of lack of broad consultation, highhandedness, poor communications, lack of connection with gay community members and organisations also concerned with the resurgence of HIV amongst gay men. The first Maori chair of the Board, Clive Aspin, had already fallen on his sword after revelations about his bagging his own organisation while addressing an overseas AIDS conference, and his allegations of institutional racism. The replacement chair, it was soon apparent, became mired in a highly emotional and overwrought approach to the job, especially when confronted by concerned Foundation members and staff. Throughout the AGM board members sat stunned at the big table as the weight of opposition to their proposals and processes became all too apparent. Past chairs, staff, community leaders, people with HIV, Maori and Pakeha, let the Board have both barrels. The Foundation's own Kaumatua, courtly Henare Te Ua, struggled to find a few gracious phrases for the Board as he opened the meeting. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the Foundation and its lifesaving work was put on the line that night. As the meeting progressed some board members tried to keep communication channels open, one publicly self-destructed in a shower of abusive comments, self-pity and belligerence, and others seemed to slowly tune out. A motion of no confidence in the board was not carried, but only on the grounds that sacking the board would undoubtedly tarnish the Foundation's solid reputation for professionalism and effectiveness. A "PERSONALLY SHATTERING" NIGHT One of the Board members who worked at keeping the meeting stable and on track was Hoani Jeremy Lambert. That AGM was a night, and a process, that Lambert admits was “personally shattering.” But he decided to stick with the job and to become part of the solution. Within ten days, after a little self-culling by a number of board members, including the overwrought chair, Lambert emerged as the new chair of the re-born Board. He now presides over what he says is a newly focussed Board, which is seeking to make amends, to re-skill... and to restore credibility. In essence, a Board's job is governance, the process of ensuring an organisation meets its legal, ethical and moral obligations; providing a framework of direction and objectives which its employees, particularly the chief executive, are tasked with achieving; and maintaining a conduit between the members (representing the community) and the Foundation's staff. “Governance is a skill, there is no doubt about that,” says Lambert. “It's a knowledge of the way in which you govern an organisation through policy, monitoring the performance of the chief executive - who is the person with whom we have the primary relationship for operations - and the organisation against the agreed strategic plan. It's about managing risk and protecting the good name of the organisation.” He's clearly aware of the irony in that statement, given the atrocious fallout from the Board's activities prior to the AGM. But the most important skill for being on the board of the NZAF, he says, "is a knowledge and understanding of the communities that are the most affected by the epidemic and that means men who have sex with men. And they have to have competency around the governance responsibilities.” THE IMPORTANCE OF LEADERSHIP But governance is also about “providing leadership,” bringing to the table “attributes including things like law, accountancy and in the case of the AIDS Foundation, we require someone who has experience as a general practitioner of medicine. We require people who have knowledge of epidemiology, research, social science... they are the nuts and bolts. But overlaying all of that is the knowledge of governance and the knowledge of the subject area that the organisation is dealing with.” And, does the self-selecting board, which casts about for its own replacement members, have those skills and knowledge now? Lambert is emphatic: “We do. We could not hope to have somebody on the board with the research knowledge of [long-serving NZAF Research Director] Tony Hughes - who is one in four and a half million. We are so lucky to have him in our organisation. He is an expert in the area of research around HIV and AIDS. Although it would be wonderful when Tony decides he's had enough of working for the Foundation that he would put his name forward to govern, we could not expect to have someone who is as knowledgeable or expert on the subject of HIV on the board.” Lambert is clearly aware of the huge stress placed on Hughes and other senior staff during the pre-AGM tension. Eager to acknowledge their experience and expertise which can only be utilised when combined with effective leadership. “In the NZ AIDS Foundation leadership comes from a number of places,” advises Lambert. “The Board provides governance leadership and by electing me as their chair I sort of assume the leadership role, being the face of the Board to the community and the face of governance.” Then there is the Board's only actual, direct, employee, Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier, who in turn employs all other staff. “She has a definite leadership function, she is head of operations on day to day business related matters.” While Le Mesurier is generally the public face of the Foundation, “in certain subject areas we have other leaders. For instance, our national management team. In the area of research we wouldn't want to have anyone else commenting other than Tony Hughes. In the area of health promotion we wouldn't want anyone else commenting other than Health Promotion Manager Te Herekiekie Herewini. We have various threads of leadership that run through the organisation. And through that we all need to work as a team... one of the things I've seen happen since the AGM is the board and staff working extremely closely now." RE-TOOLING THE MACHINE... After the schism revealed at the AGM, do we have one single, coordinated machine again at the AIDS Foundation? Again Lambert is emphatic: "We do. For instance, I've been absolutely heartened by the fact that I've been asked to make presentations to the national management team on my area of expertise, which is social marketing. I think they have enjoyed my input. I've raised some ideas and challenges for the team to consider. We've had some fantastic dialogue. I know that before I go and speak anywhere I always get my research facts checked out by Tony now. I suppose that because my specialty has always been communications I have enjoyed a constructive relationship with [recently departed media and communications coordinator] Steve Attwood and now with his replacement Chris Banks.” Lambert says the team works closely together, “but at the same time there are certain boundaries that you don't want to blur because it's extremely important that governance and operations are acting separately, but I'd like to think they're in synergy.” The key, for Lambert, is “to bring back that synergy rather us all being so separate that we are not communicating or working with each other. I believe we're getting more into that situation now.” ...AND BEING CONNECTED How does the board know what's going on throughout the country where men are having far too much unsafe sex with other men? Surely they don't have to rely on the operational staff of the Foundation to keep in touch with that? “I think Board members have to have a gut feeling. For instance, one of the recent appointments has been Mark Hendrickson. Mark has been involved with the Lavender Islands research project... that's a huge piece of social science, there's a whole lot of information falling out of that.” But Lambert says the personal experience of all Board members is important too, “and across the board we are probably tapped into quite different communities. I know that I take quite a lot of responsibility for what's happening around the Maori gay community, and I would like to think that I am now in a position where people from the takataapui community can come and talk to me about any concerns that might be having around the way that we are addressing the epidemic.” Cameron Law, a lead campaigner around the civil unions legislation, has also recently joined the board, “and brings his own personal network. It is important that board members can demonstrate their connection... it doesn't really matter what form that connection takes, it can be different for different people.” BACK TO BASICS: THE CONSTITUTION So what is the reconfigured board, with its new skills and expertise freshly on board, doing with this Constitutional Review thing. What's that all about? “It's part of an important balancing act, explains Lambert.” “We need to be thoroughly focussed on getting the infection figures down. We have been presented with yet another year in which we have a new high in notifications of HIV infections. That needs to be our primary focus. That means this board needs to deliver on the promises it makes to its members. We made a promise via a remit that was passed at that Annual General Meeting that we would conduct a Constitutional Review which would be conducted by a working group." That working group, established earlier this year, has a majority of non-board members on it, drawn from some of the most forceful and coherent critics of the Board at the 2005 AGM: ex-Cheif Executive Director Warren Lindberg, and past board members Richard Tankersley and Michael Stevens. “The Board asked me to also be involved, together with Cameron," says Lambert. "I'm extremely busy but I take my role in this review very seriously, because I think that shows how seriously the Board members take the review... the fact that they want their chairperson to be on that group and to be involved.” The group has put together a consultation process “which I think is a template for how we should have conducted the initial consultation around the [slightly contentious] Treaty of Waitangi clause." Apart from the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi part of the constitution, how much else of this constitution is up for review? “The whole thing. It's important for the working group that we let members know that this isn't just going to be about issues that the Board wants to have considered. Its not just issues that the staff want tackled. This is about any and all issues that our members might have. We went out to our members and asked them to tell us what issues they wanted us to look at as part of this review.” The working group prepared a discussion document which a month ago was sent out to the Foundation's financial members for comment. Recipients can write back with their opinions on the issues raised in the discussion document or they can formally present to the working group in meetings next week and the week after (for dates and locations see's national Events diary, linked below). “The working group will then put together a paper of recommendations to the Board so the Board can consider those recommendations and then, finally, formulate recommendations for consideration by the membership at the next Annual General Meeting. “This process is entirely transparent,” Lambert stresses. “The working party report which goes to the Board will not be confidential. It will be released to members with the AGM papers, along with the board's responses to that working party report.” Next week, as the public consultation process kicks in with meetings in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch, will bring you the second part of our interview with NZAF Board Chair Jeremy Lambert, in which he is frank about our community's poor response to the surging HIV infection rate. He signals aggressive approaches to HIV education; and he confronts the NZAF's role in making HIV and AIDS matter again. Jay Bennie - 3rd August 2006    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Thursday, 3rd August 2006 - 12:00pm

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