A Variety of Roles
24 March 2015 at 11:04 am
As the Chairman of Variety, Richard Symon loves making a difference in the lives of sick and disadvantaged children. In this month’s Evolving Chair column he shares his tips for running an effective Board.
Symon was appointed Chairman of Variety at the charity’s annual meeting in December 2014.
As the charity celebrates its 40th year in Australia, Symon said there were still many hurdles facing its day-to-day operations.
But at the end of the day it is the look on the faces of the children they are helping that motivates Symon to continue with his work.
Symon co-founded and is Chair of the Financial Services Foundation, a supporter and partner of Variety in raising funds for children’s charities.
He is also Executive Chairman of the ASX listed MDS Financial Group, serves on the Life Saving Victoria, Grievances and Judiciary Procedures Committee and is an active patrol member of Point Lonsdale Surf Life Saving Club.
What is your organisation and what is the board structure?
Founded in 1927 in Pittsburgh, USA, after entertainers found an abandoned baby, Catherine, and cared for her. They saw the need to support more children and Variety, known as the “heart of show business” because of its beginnings, spread. Comedian Paul Hogan brought it to Australia 40 years ago.
Variety the Children’s Charity has International, Australia and State boards and operates thanks to a small staff and a large group of volunteers.
What attracts you to a Not for Profit or for-profit board?
Variety is dedicated to assisting “special” children: sick, those living with disabilities and those who are underprivileged. It’s an honour to serve and very rewarding.
What is the biggest challenge your board has had to overcome? And how did you overcome it?
We spend an inordinate amount of time and resources complying with regulatory issues. As an events-based charity, the “cost of production” is given little thought in attempting to meet stipulated percentage grants as a function of receipts. It is ongoing and problematic.
What are your board’s current priorities/goals?
Raising funds and providing tangible grants to children with needs. Doing this by raising the profile of Variety in a busy marketplace.
Is gender balance an issue for your board? Do you prioritise it?
It is interesting because the Board is 13 per cent and the staff are 87 per cent female.
What is your board’s ultimate goal?
Creating a brand, reputation and legacy to assist children with extenuating needs, into the future.
What has been the highlight of your work with this board?
The look on children’s faces when they attend the free Variety Children’s Christmas Party at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. All 5,400 children are entertained and go home with presents. Parents, carers and volunteers, 8,000 people attend.
What are the key sector issues that are being discussed at board level?
1. Maintaining and creating events and opportunities to secure revenues to deliver tangible and desperately required grants.
2. Harnessing volunteers to assist in our programs and as a result reduce overheads.
3. Ensuring grants paid can be maintained and increased through relatively difficult economic times and lumpy revenue streams.
4. Leveraging and broadening our support base, so as not to continually seek resources and financial support from the same people.
Does your board believe collaboration between organisations within your area is important? Why?
Absolutely. Variety provides funding and resources to service delivery charities, eg Sunshine (wheelchair lifting) Coaches and wheelchair swings as well as special and often unique equipment for children in need. This is as a result of relationships with other charities and collaborative efforts to secure donations.
Do you have any advice around governance?
Ensure you have a capable lawyer or pro-bono legal relationship available to ensure compliance and other governance issues are met. It is far too easy in a voluntary board for an agenda to be carried without appropriate critique.
Do you have any advice around recruitment?
When you interview, you are told about passion to “make a difference” to the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children. The lesson, for any recruitment but particularly in the Not for Profit sector, is to endeavour to see the extent that a potential hire really does give back, not just takes a wage.
Do you have any advice around risk management?
Assess all risk, especially the not so obvious. Risk mitigation for Variety includes monitoring and assessing situations constantly, particularly with outback “Bash” vehicle events a major source of donations. Participants are having a great time and a holiday but are interspersed with employees and volunteers for whom the Board has an absolute responsibility and duty of care. This does present problems if not resolved quickly.
Do you have any advice around mergers?
Ensure conflicts and redundancies are dealt with expeditiously. The message through the “new” organisation must be strategic and unambiguous.
Do you have any advice on board members raising money?
Yes. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many can’t bring themselves to do so.
Do you have any advice around the Board’s relationship with the Chief Executive Officer?
Critical is the bond of trust between the Board and Executive, particularly the Chair and CEO. The demarcation of Board responsibilities and operational must be defined and strategy, KPI’s etc enunciated. Then inspect what you expect.
Do you have any advice on sustainable business/organisation models?
Spend less than you raise. Not as funny as it seems, as Variety Victoria has been recovering from unfunded grants and pledges made in the past without board knowledge. Given that a percentage of revenues must be donated out, it takes years to squirrel away funds to build a foundation for the future.
Can someone please explain this concept to whoever determines the percentage that must be granted? It is akin to telling BHP that they must declare 40 per cent profits on revenues otherwise they are forced by government to close down.