2 years ago 💘 for day 5, 2019 with 1351 words.

Field notes from The Observership program

In 2018 I was fortunate to be part of The Observership program, which gave me the opportunity to participate in a not for profit board for the whole year. The program was founded in 2014 by Jonathan Gavshon, and has grown to include over 100 organisations across Melbourne and Sydney. Its vision is to create an active and engaged network of socially aware emerging leaders.

It was a great experience for me, so I thought to share what it was like and some of the key insights I have come away with.

The way the program is broadly structured is that people between 25 and 40 are invited to apply, and then go through a vetting and match making process to ultimately be paired up with one of the participating organisations. Then, for the duration of the year, the Observer is essentially treated by the organisation as a non-voting board member - they receive all of the communications and reading material as and when the actual board members do, attend all of the board meetings, and can be part of board sub-committees. The level of hands on involvement and opportunity to speak and contribute at board meetings depends on the individual circumstances within each organisations. From what I understand, some boards give their Observer lots of opportunity to contribute, while for others the expectation is that the Observer is more passive.

Coupled with the hands on observing which takes place in the board room, the early part of the year involves six training sessions at the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD). These evening sessions cover topics relevant for not for profit (NFP) boards, such as the responsibilities of a director, strategy, risk, governance etc. In addition to providing structured learning, it is also a chance for the whole cohort of Observers to spend time together trading stories from their boards, and generally networking with each other.

The NFP organisation that I was paired up with was Philanthropy Australia who ”serve a community of funders, social investors and social change agents working to achieve positive social, cultural, environmental and community change by leveraging their financial assets and influence”. On the spectrum of organisations involved in The Observership program, Philanthropy Australia would be in the mid range in terms of number of staff and dollar turnover. However, the calibre of the board was off the charts, being an extremely experienced group of people from both business and the NFP sector.

My understanding is that in recent years there has been a lot of focus within Philanthropy Australia on governance, and this was certainly evident from what I observed. The board papers were always circulated well in advance of the meetings, and it seemed that the papers had evolved to a point where they almost represented a shorthand for the board members - it was clear where to look for information, and they knew how to quickly interpret what was being presented to them (this was especially the case with the financial reports). It was obvious how this high level of governance played a significant role in the effective and efficient functioning of the board, and in turn the organisation more broadly.

The dynamic between the people on board was really interesting to observe. It was a big group, with there typically being a combination of around 15 board members and staff in the room, with another 4 or 5 attending remotely. I was struck but how the Chair, Alan Schwartz, was able to consistently maintain a balance between giving everyone an opportunity to speak, while getting through the agenda on time, while also displaying leadership in terms of his sharing his views.

There was obviously a strong rapport between all of the board members, which no doubt has a positive influence on the dynamics. One thing which stood out to me early on and has stuck with me since is how most of the communication from the board members was phrased as questions, rather than as statements or directives. Sometimes it almost like an other language - to always be able to phrase things in this way. But the result was that conversations were very open, and the board members seemed able to raise a concern or an idea without it coming across too strongly.

I attended two dinners with the board, which were special experiences for me. At the first one, I ended up sitting next to Allan English who is a very successful Australian businessman. He was extremely generous in sharing his experience and perspectives, and told me about his mindfulness practice, and about his journey with the study and practice of integral theory. I had never mediated before that day, and now almost a year later I have meditated every single day since - so inspired was I by Allan’s story of how key mediation has been to his success. Integral theory is something I am getting increasingly versed in as a way of understanding the development of people and organisations, and this interest has already started opening new doors for me professionally. So needless to say, this one conversation feels like it was a life changing moment, and I consider myself lucky to have been in the situation to have it.

Something I observed at the dinners, and in the board room itself, was that this group of people seemed to genuinely like working together. This was reflected in a story from the CEO, Sarah Davies, who had attended some board meetings of similar organisations in other countries, and she recounted that they were often very dry and serious affairs. In contrast, the Philanthropy Australia board meetings were high energy, and even though there were always serious matters being discussed, there was a lot of laughter and good humour. It is good reminder to invest in building up a positive culture through selecting the right people, and then creating the opportunities for those relationships to develop through activities such as dinners.

Before spending this year observing the Philanthropy Australia board I always knew that NFPs operated under resource constraints, however, this experience really bought home to me how significant those constraints are. I work as a commercial IT consultant, and this expertise is one of the reasons I was selected by Philanthropy Australia as their Observer for 2018. I had the opportunity to learn about their IT systems and strategy, and provided advice on how to proceed in certain areas. What was clear though, is that NFPs work with a completely different scale of budget than I am accustomed to encountering in the commercial world. Sometimes the difference was as stark as what a commercial organisation would spend in a day or an hour on an IT project, is more than an organisation like Philanthropy Australia can afford to spend in a year on similar IT initiatives. This is broadly a challenge I am very keen to find a way to solve - how might we ensure that the organisations who are working to better our society and planet have access to the technology and expertise to make them as effective as possible in what they do?

I am looking forward to taking the learnings and experiences from having been an Observer on the Philanthropy Australia board forward in my career. I’m somewhat uniquely placed in that while I work in the commercial sector, I am actively involved in initiatives related to “shared value” whereby we are seeking to create positive social outcomes through business, and I am also involved in the NFP sector through Random Hacks of Kindness and Flying Robot School. So there will be many opportunities to apply the learnings not only around NFP governance, but also to build on the experience of having observed seasoned business people go about guiding an organisation through strategic decisions.

I would highly recommend The Observership to anyone interested in creating change through being involved in a for purpose organisation such a NFP. It provides the opportunity to gain insights which I’m not sure would be possible to achieve in any other way.


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By Pete Cohen


My first "career" was as an indie musician. These days I work in IT consulting. I'm hoping that getting into the writing habit will help me bring my creative and professional worlds together.

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