There are remote areas all over Australia, across Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and NSW; but the Northern Territory classifies as entirely remote and very remote. The population of the Territory is small, at around 240,000 people – that’s about the size of Wollongong. There are many highly skilled and experienced board members and potential board members in the Northern Territory. However, the small population and high transience of skilled professionals means that ensuring there is the right mix of skill sets (finance, legal, leadership, marketing, fundraising,) as well as member representation, local level knowledge, content expertise and regular board renewal – it’s a really big ask for many boards.
About half of our clients are regional and remote non-profit organisations delivering on their mission across Australia, mostly in the Northern Territory. Some are Aboriginal Corporations delivering essential services such as health programs, aged care and disability services and some supporting Outstations and Homelands. Across the Territory, there are also world leading Aboriginal Art Centres. There are land councils, ranger and land management groups, along with domestic and family violence and legal services. We support them through board audits, on-site governance training and inductions and all types of strategic and business planning. While this article doesn’t address these specific cultural concerns, many of the issues raised here also affect these remote area corporations.
For Indigenous boards, there are many more layers to consider including the importance of correct cultural and family representation and the demands on community leaders both in their communities and elsewhere.
Recently, we interviewed the volunteer Chair of a remote area schools association in Central Australia. While the board conducted some of their meetings through Skype or other video conferencing, they still had at least four meetings a year face to face in Alice Springs. The Chair lived on a remote cattle station and so she makes a 10-hour round trip to attend a two-hour board meeting. That’s commitment to governance!
Like boards all over Australia, many of these organisations struggle to attract and retain enough suitably skilled board members. These organisations also face some extra challenges which require some pragmatic problem solving.
Using technology to improve access to meetings for board members is quite well utilised and advances in video conferencing have made it much easier. For remote locations, good coverage and being able to participate by smartphone or tablet as well as on computer are really important. Many governance regulatory bodies such as ORIC now allow for board meetings to be entirely run via telephone or video conferencing; or for individual board members to phone in and participate remotely. According to some of our very remote clients in East Arnhem land, there are some good solutions with great connectivity available now through platforms such as Zoom and Blue Jeans.
For many Aboriginal Corporations, their board members are very mobile and often find themselves in other remote communities or town centres such as Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine. Often, key service bodies or peak organisations in these centres are able to provide access to technology so that board members can connect into a remote area board meeting. The reality of this does require commitment from both the board member, their organisation and the supporting body to make it happen, but this is becoming more of a necessity as the number of community people accessing these town centres for a range of services increases.
A new ‘Talent Pool’ for remote location boards
What technology enables is opportunities for boards to engage with skilled and available board members located in other parts of Australia, such as capital cities, large regional cities and other remote areas.
Even for Aboriginal corporations where their Rule Books require board members to be from the local tribe or language group, the appointment of an Independent Director could bring an opportunity to engage with skilled professionals who are located elsewhere.
Some of the larger nationally based non-profits have board members from interstate due to their internal governance structures and this is something smaller, Territory-based organisations may want to consider.
To find this new talent pool, it’s essential to advertise board vacancies beyond remote and regional communities and even beyond the Northern Territory. Entities such as the Institute for Community Directors (ourcommunity.com.au), the relevant state and Territory councils of community services (NTCOSS, VCOSS, QCOSS etc.) or the relevant peak volunteer bodies-SA/NT Volunteering, Volunteering Queensland all provide opportunities to post board vacancies. For specific board positions, key sector bodies such as CPA (Chartered Practicing Accountants) can often unearth keen accountants wanting to broaden their board experience. Starting with the peak body in the sector in which you operate is a great start.
Committing at a Constitution level
When we work with boards on projects to update their Constitution or Rule Book, we are often facilitating a conversation about board diversity, skill sets and participation. We pose questions such as: “Can we make changes at the Constitution level which will enable maximum engagement, motivation and participation of board members?" Or, “How do we ensure our board has the skill set and experience to help us achieve our mission and our current strategy?"
Some of these changes may be quite ordinary practices, such as limiting the number of years a board member can serve before they need to step down. This keeps the dynamic of board fresh as well as gives a board member a structured break; and can also be useful if extensive travel is required for meeting attendance. If board members know they have an exit point, this can be really motivating in attracting new potential candidates for appointment to the board.
The Constitution is also the place to name that a certain number of board meetings can take place remotely. Perhaps just two meetings per year can be face to face and all the others via technology. It’s important (within the Act of course!) that the Constitution can empower and support good governance not hinder it.
Building a better board
There are alternatives to just recruiting board members from your local town or community. If someone can drive 10 hours to attend a board meeting then connecting in three board members via Zoom must be possible. The sustainability of these small to medium non-profits rely so heavily on good board governance that attracting, retaining and growing up new board members has to be a priority to ensure the regional and remote non-profit sector can keep delivering. Remote pragmatism and creative thinking have to be applied in the board room as well as the bush.