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The gifts of renewal
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

The gifts of renewal

Guest blog by National Heart Foundation of Australia Group CEO, Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM.

It may seem a strange time to be talking about governance. As COVID-19 expands around the globe, and the Australian economy enters recession, the temptation for organisations can be to assume a crouching position. Yet this is precisely the time that good governance is most vital and most rewarding. 

As we move out of the acute stage of the pandemic and into what may be a long slow recovery, Australian companies face economic imperatives unimaginable three months ago: the need to preserve capital, review short and medium-term returns, and seek efficiencies while trying to maintain experienced workforces. All of this poses particular challenges for Australia’s 57,000 registered charities, the Heart Foundation among them.

But having spent the past four years dismantling and rebuilding the structures that underpin our organisation, the Heart Foundation has also seen first-hand the critical role of organisational renewal in preparing for the big and small shocks that life delivers. I’d like to share a little of our experience.

In 2016 the Heart Foundation made a vital decision. Back then, despite external appearances, we were not one heart foundation but many. Nine separate hearts beating in eight different states and territories, plus a separate “national” company; each with its own board, CEO and management team (91 directors in all); each answerable to its own members. Each beating its own drum.

To say that the system was complex is an understatement; “unworkable” might be a better word.

The foundations and the national body operated under a highly legalistic Memorandum of Understanding that meant loyalties were often divided over whether to serve the perceived national or local interest. On a practical level, the National Board might, for instance, want to instigate a national marketing campaign, but the states and territories would not have to participate. The release of public information could be ad hoc and inconsistent. Decision-making was laborious, and generally meant that lowest-common-denominator outcomes prevailed. Constitutional change was near impossible.

The case for renewal was overwhelming.

This is not to say it was entirely welcome. Documenting the need for governance reform is the easy part.  Galvanising support is far harder. Inertia, anxiety and vested interests are powerful forces. And they must be navigated skilfully and with respect.

Planning is crucial, as is leadership (at board and management levels). A realistic budget must be set, internal staff allocated (ideally full-time), a steering committee and management lead group established. Bringing in an external expert in transformational change helps. Communication and consultation are non-negotiable – even when those conversations are difficult. (One of the key lessons for the foundation was the importance of clarifying early the optimum shape and skillset of the board and leadership group.) The whole process will take more time, focus and patience than you imagined.

Yet today the Heart Foundation is a single national company with a skills-based board of up to 10 directors (81 fewer than previously), and an independent chair. It wasn’t easy. But the effort has more than paid off.

The reforms laid the foundations for a process of renewal that continues today.

With the new structure in place, it is now possible to review the organisation’s policies from the board level down. We can make national decisions about what levels of risk are acceptable and how best to manage that risk. We can work to articulate and support a coherent organisational culture within which staff had a clear sense of direction while feeling empowered to make decisions. Today, turnover is down; job satisfaction is up.

Most profoundly, we are now led by a board with a clear strategic focus that permeates all levels of the organisation.

Of course, governance reform didn’t help us to see what was coming. But it did mean that when it came, we were better prepared to deal with what the pandemic threw at us.

All the organisational renewal work over the past four years has culminated in us being organisationally and (at least to some extent) culturally prepared for the changes that we, like most businesses, have had to deal with.

With a leaner, more focused team, we were able to be reasonably agile when confronted with the challenges dished up by COVID-19 – working from home, relying on digital technology and learning to communicate in new ways. People have felt closer, and the flow of information between individuals and departments has been better.

This in turn has helped us communicate more effectively with donors, and to offer Australians living with heart disease better-targeted, more consistent information and advice. Covid-19 poses a particular threat to people with heart disease, so our campaign and media announcements around this may well have saved lives.

I’m not saying that you need a crisis to begin a process of organisational reform; there are plenty of other triggers – including the simple recognition that your systems are not helping you make the best decisions. Nor am I suggesting that reform is a panacea. Renewal is a process not an outcome. As with planting trees, the best time to begin is generally years ago. But, whatever your level of preparedness leading into the pandemic, the second-best time may well be now.

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