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EVOLVING CHAIR: Engineering an Effective Board

29 January 2015 at 10:27 am
Xavier Smerdon
As the Chairman of the Board at Engineers Without Borders, Phil Clark oversees an organisation that is making real change in some of the world’s poorest countries. In this month’s Evolving Chair column he shares his insight into running an effective Board.

Xavier Smerdon | 29 January 2015 at 10:27 am


EVOLVING CHAIR: Engineering an Effective Board
29 January 2015 at 10:27 am

As the Chairman of the Board at Engineers Without Borders, Phil Clark oversees an organisation that is making real change in some of the world’s poorest countries. In this month’s Evolving Chair column he shares his insight into running an effective Board.  

Phil Clark has operated mines in both Australia and Africa and has held global corporate roles for BHP Billiton sector groups, including VP Health Safety Environment & Community and VP Resource Development.

As well as Chair of EWB Australia, Clark has directorships in listed and non-listed public companies including Engineers Without Borders International and the Victorian state Government’s City West Water.

He is also Chair of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s Melbourne Branch.

What is your organisation and what is the board structure?

Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) is a member-based Not for Profit organisation with 11 years experience in creating systemic change through humanitarian engineering in Australia and South East Asia.

EWB achieves this working in partnership to address a lack of access to basic human needs such as clean water, sanitation and hygiene, energy, basic infrastructure, waste systems, information communication technology and engineering education.

We are creating systemic change through educating and training Australian students, engineers and the wider community on issues including sustainable development, appropriate technology, poverty and the power of humanitarian engineering.

Additionally, we are leading an international movement of like-minded people with strong values and a passion for humanitarian engineering.

EWB is a public company limited by guarantee; the Board has seven volunteer non-executive directors.

What attracts you to a Not for Profit or for-profit board?

For any Board position you need to believe in the organisation. I was a member of EWB for many years and volunteered on local projects before being asked to join the Board.

EWB simply does great things for disadvantaged communities and is changing the face of engineering in Australia and overseas. The outcomes our people achieve make it easy to volunteer and support them.

What is the biggest challenge your board has had to overcome? And how did you overcome it?

When I was asked to join the Board by EWB’s founder, Danny Almagor, we both recognised the need to update internal systems and processes to meet the needs of corporate partners and philanthropic groups. This is generally thankless work and diverts immediate effort from helping others to an internal focus. At the same time, we strengthened the organisation’s balance sheet.

To stay on track was challenging, with some staff departures, but ultimately we have doubled revenue over the last four years, enabling greater impact in our work. The efforts of our people were recognised by being only the second NGO to achieve full AusAID accreditation on the first attempt.

What are your board’s current priorities/goals?

Our first and foremost priority is to assist EWB to achieve its vision and mission and to ensure it does so in a manner consistent with good governance.

Additionally, we are establishing Pro Bono Engineering and Design, similar in concept to the legal profession, where engineering companies can utilise their skills, knowledge and expertise on a significantly reduced, or no-fee basis, to assist a community organisation who would otherwise not be able to access engineering expertise.

Is gender balance an issue for your board? Do you prioritise it?

Diversity in many forms; gender, skills, geographic is an issue; with elected Directors in a national member based organisation of mostly engineers, attracting a diverse range of skills to oversee the business of EWB has at times been challenging.

The membership recently adopted changes to the Constitution allowing the Board to appoint Directors with non-engineering business skills. Appointed Directors must at all times be a minority of elected Directors.

On the specifics of gender diversity in the Board room, including Non-Execs, CEO and Company Secretary we have a 5:4 female:male ratio.

What has been the highlight of your work with this board?

I had the opportunity to visit some of our work in Cambodia recently and continue to be amazed how a simple collaborative and strength based approach partnering with local communities can achieve systemic change.

What are the key sector issues that are being discussed at board level?

In the development sector, changes to legislation and government funding create a lot of discussion. Additionally, in the engineering sector, the downturn in resource projects has impacted many of our corporate partners and this flows through to our revenue. Both make forecasting revenue beyond 12 to 18 months highly variable.

Does your board believe collaboration between organisations within your area is important? Why?

EWB’s approach is to partner with local and regional NGOs to provide engineering services to those organisations. For example we currently work in partnership with Habitat For Humanity on several South East Asian projects.

In the engineering education and humanitarian space, EWB works closely with like-minded organisations. For example, in February 2015, EWB is hosting Link Festival,, a two-day conference focussed on design, technology and social change.  The festival brings together organisations such as Oxfam, CoDesign Australia, Architects Without Frontiers, Good Design Australia and Arup.  

Do you have any advice around governance?

I’d encourage all Directors to have a good working knowledge of their constitution, attend training opportunities and read some of the readily available booklets. Then get a really good Company Secretary.

Do you have any advice around recruitment?

Hire slowly and cautiously.

Do you have any advice on board members raising money?

A balanced Board has a range of skills; some members have good connections with government, corporate and other funding organisations. We should utilise those skills. Other Board members bring skills that do not include raising money. We’re volunteers and we focus efforts according to our skills and experience, whilst learning from each other.

The key is having the right mix of Board skills to support the strategy and business needs. Revenue seems to always be a business need.

Do you have any advice around the Board’s relationship with the Chief Executive Officer?

As an ex-operator of large businesses, this is sometimes really hard. That said, the Board never knows the organisation as well as the CEO, so we need to trust and monitor, whilst clearly articulating boundaries through the Board Charter and delegation policy.


Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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