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Inside Body Positive

Fri 9 Oct 2015 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

As tension remains high around a members' presentation of a petition of no confidence to the board of Body Positive Executive Director Mark Fisher was deputed by the organisation's chair to discuss how things are proceeding and some of the underlying issues it is facing. Body Positive Executive Director Mark Fisher This discussion originally stems from a comment by BP chair Ashley Barratt to Daily News to the effect that the no confidence petition was making funders nervously ask questions about the organisation's stability. It should be pointed out that Fisher is not a board member, though he does attend board meetings. First up, for clarity, are Body Positive's funders nervous? “The Minister of Health is okay with the direction we are taking. Our contract with them is secure.” What about the other, smaller and more ad-hoc funders? Are they ringing up concerned? “There has been no contact." So far the board seems to be struggling to understand the intent behind the 48-ish member petition of no confidence, can Fisher shed any light on that? It seems not. Members who wish to speak with the board at its regular meetings come to the meetings “before I'm invited in because that is supposed to be their opportunity to address the board without my input. At the last meeting the petitioners' representative was there for an hour and a half but I don't know what happened. I do know that after that discussion the representative went away to meet with the petitioners to come back with a response as to what they're doing." Fisher believes the discontent expressed in the petition stems from the closure of the Wellington office. “Beyond that I think there is an issue of communication from the board so the board has set up a communications committee to improve that... beyond that I don't know.” The handling so far of the petition by the board seems to be aggravating some of the petitioners, those who had expected the process it would instigate would be more straightforward and immediate. What is the process that has to be followed with a petition of this nature? “As I understand it, within three weeks they have to call a special general meeting so that everybody has an opportunity to come to it and then it goes out to a vote to the rest of the membership not just the ones who signed the petition because they are a minority of our members,” Fisher says. “So there's a Special General Meeting where everyone gets a chance to talk to the motion and then there's a vote on the motion. At that point if the motion is approved then the board has to step down. At that point there is no board so we then have to work out how to do an election of new board members.” Is the board unanimously ok with the way this matter is currently being handled? “Because I attend the board meetings I see the votes and yes, it is. There have been suggestions that some people have subsequently taken their signatures off the petition due to bullying tactics by Fisher. “I had two people come to me saying they weren't comfortable, that they weren't aware they were signing a petition, they were told it was a mailing list. One was organising his WINZ appointments when he was asked to sign it and just thought it was an official document. They weren't aware of what they were signing so they asked me to take their names off. There were 48 names on the petition so taking two off is no great deal.” Daily News has subsequently spoken with one of those men who removed his signature from the petition. He says he was not told it was a petition of no confidence in the board, he thought it was "something to do with the closure of the Wellington office" and the Wellington office manager therefore being out of a job. He said he doesn't want to destabilise what he believes is a good organisation. There have also been suggestions that a staffer who signed the petition was coerced into removing his signature. “He signed the petition and there was a issue about whether he should be signing a petition against the board when he is still an active staff person,"Fisher says. "I said it is easier for us if he just takes his name off, I can't have internal conflicts within the organisation." Does that mean any member who works for the organisation cannot express their view in a petition or at an AGM? “He asked me if he would be allowed to vote on the motion of the petition and I said yes.” Will he also be allowed to speak to the motion? “Yes.” So where is the difference between signing the petition and voting on the motion? “It's not good for the organisation to have a staff person being seen to be combative towards the board who are basically his employer. So to get clarity he took his name off.” Were there employer/employee bullying tactics involved in this? “No.” It's also been suggested by several signatories that the chair's incorrect comment that funders were already nervously questioning Fisher about this matter are part of a scare campaign by the board, trying to worry petitioners about the consequences of their action. “The way Ashley's comment was worded caused me some concern in terms of our funding because I assumed other funders would see that and decide not to fund us. Basically, if the organisation isn't in a stable form then any investors will put their money elsewhere, that's my fear.” Anger and frustration by the member signatories seems particularly directed at the board chair and to some degree Fisher as well. There are charges that the process of change at Body Positive is being driven by the pair. “The process of change has been in place since the March AGM. I was brought on because basically the organisation was failing. There was a net $75,000 loss before I came on. Everybody assumes it was me that did that but it [was apparent] in June last year before I came on. And we have no reserves, we've always worked on a wing and a prayer essentially, we don't manage a reserve fund to get through tough times so having a $75,000 loss with that model was dangerous. I was brought on to basically save the organisation." Years of observation of might suggest that being in a parlous financial state is just par for the course for any glbti community organisation? “We hadn't had a loss like that before.” What caused the loss? “Pretty much Wellington. It was opened without a financial model being put in place and it was supposed to be sustainable within a year. It raised $20,000 compared to the around $100,000 per year it cost so around $75,000 came out of core funding and basically that wasn't there. It was supposed to have been reviewed with a year but it never was. We could have faced another $75,000 loss this year and basically that would have been the end of the organisation if we had to repeat losses like that." With the move to a more distributed, volunteer based model for supporting members could even the Auckland office as a walk-in public presence disappear? “Potentially that would be an option,” Fisher says. “On the other side, there is an opportunity to join forces with other community organisations and create a [hub] which is more community-based. Essentially we need to drop our space down." Another complaint voiced to is that the new plan of delivering support is an overseas model being thrust on Body Positive. Is it proven? Is it applicable to NZ circumstances? “Yes. It's highly successful. There's a three year waiting list to get onto the [training] programme in New Zealand, there's a hundred people waiting to get onto it in Australia.” Body Positive has traditionally assisted HIV-positive people, most of whom are gay and bi men, who are living complicated and difficult lives... perhaps with psychological, relationship, substance abuse, immigration and other issues. Walking into an actual office meant they were instantly tapped into the skills and experience of someone who knew the ins and outs of these areas. Under the new scheme it appears they would instead have to ring up someone, a voice on the end of a phone, who may not have the depth of institutional knowledge. Does the new programme include how to get successful outcomes for those vulnerable people? “What about the people in Christchurch or other areas... they get nothing. I can't open an office in Christchurch because we cannot afford it. The model I'm moving towards uses people who have gone through the system before, people who are supervised and mentored.” But just besause Chch or Dunedin can't have that service is that a good reason for Wellington, or Auckland, not to get it too? Often the need has been for someone with experience to take a troubled person by the hand and head down to a WINZ office for instance... will the new training quipt the volunteers to help people connect in to asistance with addiction, income, family issues, disruption in their lives, employment and other issues, all those things that can complicate life for some HIV-positive people? “Yes, that is the intent. We've never cultured a model of engaging peers in this sector, ever, so that is what we need to do. Because it empowers the person doing the support and to also empowers the person who's needing them." This new programme, this strategy, is it something Fisher brought to the board when he agreed to join the organisation or is it something which the board told him was the direction they wished to go? “Not being able to recall specifically, I would assume they would have asked me for a direction in order to make the organisation sustainable, to increase our funding, to reduce our overheads and to provide services as a national organisation. That's the mandate. We're not funded to do most of the stuff we do including all of that direct support stuff you mentioned, we're not funded to do that. That was the challenge to me, how do I move BP forward and keep it in a sustainable model. And I brought a lot of that experience and knowledge with me in terms of what we can do. “I'm working within the agreed strategic plan that was in place before I got here, we're in the third year of that. I did take out one of the clauses in there, they wanted to create a gay men's health centre here and I said that's not appropriate, it's just not a priority for us and the board agreed with that. Setrting up a health clinic here would be extremely expensive. My priority at this point is doing direct suppport and getting that funded and doing it in a proper manner that is evaluated and consistent... and funding, that is an absolute priority this year.” Does Body Positive's Executive Director have a message for those who initiated and who signed the petition? “Become more engaged. A lot of the people that have signed it see me in the building and yet they won't ask me questions and they operate on misinformation and rumour. So if they want to actually be engaged in the organisation and move it forward, please come and help out, volunteer, do some productive stuff.” Jay Bennie - 9th October 2015    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 9th October 2015 - 10:38am

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