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Evolving Chair: Taking Action in a Time of Change

3 May 2016 at 9:00 am
Ellie Cooper
Giving young people a voice and ensuring that youth issues are on the agenda in the upcoming federal election are the current priorities for board chair Jon Brew, who features in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Ellie Cooper | 3 May 2016 at 9:00 am


Evolving Chair: Taking Action in a Time of Change
3 May 2016 at 9:00 am

Giving young people a voice and ensuring that youth issues are on the agenda in the upcoming federal election are the current priorities for board chair Jon Brew, who features in this month’s Evolving Chair.

Jon Brew headshotJon Brew is chair of Youth Action, the peak body for youth organisations and young people in New South Wales. In his four years leading the board, Youth Action has undergone significant change.    

In this month’s Evolving Chair he shares his story of navigating a cross-roads and implementing positive change to create a sustainable organisation that serves young people in NSW.

What is the board structure of Youth Action?

The board is made up of nine directors, and they’re elected by the members. At each AGM any vacant positions are voted by the membership of the association.

What attracted you to the board?

I’d been working in the sector for 25 years. When I joined, the organisation was called YAPA, which was the Youth Action Policy Association, and I was aware that it was the peak body for youth services and young people, and I was always interested in the work they were doing. An opportunity came up and so I put myself forward for election and was voted in as chair. It was also an organisation that I saw was at a cross-roads, and I saw an opportunity for my knowledge and skills in regards to the sector to put into the organisation.

Can you explain the cross-roads you just mentioned?

The youth sector, when I first started, was quite an ad hoc sector. Over the years it’s become more professionalised, and it’s quite a huge sector any organisation that works with young people, and that can include homelessness services to youth centres run by local councils. There’s 1.25 million young people in New South Wales and more research had been done into youth work as a profession, so over the years it had become more professionalised. And I felt that the peak body needed to be moving with that progression to professionalism. Youth work had progressed into a more professionalised, more organised sector and the peak body that represented it needed to move along with it.

What are your board’s current priorities?

In the last four years we’ve gone through a lot of change. We embarked on structural changes to the organisation to make it more relevant but viable and sustainable. The organisation is in a healthy position, and part of those stages was the recruitment of our CEO. The strategic direction for the board is doing the work that we need to be doing.

We’ve got four key areas that the organisation is concentrating on. [The first one is] amplifying the voice of young people through engaging young people into decision-making in the areas that affect their lives. Another one is equipping the youth sector to show their impact, and that’s providing support to the sector through collecting data, representation and engagement at a government level, and also their engagement in the community.

We’re also looking at, as an organisation, influencing decisions. There’s a major reform coming up in the sector, the government’s funding reform, so it’s supporting the sector through those reforms. At the federal elections we run election campaigns, and that’s highlighting the issues that are affecting young people and that are important to young people, to the candidates, and looking at making sure that youth issues are part of the federal election agenda. And the fourth one is being an accountable organisation and, in terms of governance, ensuring that we’re viable, that we’re representative of our members, and looking at ways we can better deliver the services, through collaborations and increasing our stakeholder engagement.

What is the biggest challenge your board has had to overcome?

There have been many. We’ve gone through a lot of change in the last three years. We went through a staff restructure – in terms of being financially viable we needed to restructure the staffing. We went through a rebrand of the organisation, so we were called YAPA and we rebranded to be called Youth Action, and that was to increase brand awareness and increase our profile. We changed our website, we rebranded our logo. At a board level we went to a special general meeting and proposed to the members changes to the objectives and rules of the association. We changed our membership eligibility to expand the pool of our membership and to increase the expertise Youth Action could draw from.

We also changed the board composition. Previously the board was made up of representatives from the member organisations, so mainly representatives from the sector. But as a board we needed to attract the skills and expertise the legal, the financial, HR, marketing that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to draw from our membership. So by changing our board composition we were able to strengthen the leadership capacity of the board, and to introduce members with acquired skill sets, and to ensure the proper governance of the organisation. At our special general meeting we put forward 31 changes to the constitution, which were voted through. There was that constitutional change, and we also made a change to the duration of the terms for the board members. So previously at each AGM all positions were up for vote, whereas we introduced one, two and three-year terms to ensure that board members could effectively contribute to the governance, but also to ensure sustainability of operations so that each year there wasn’t a changeover of new board members. Through those changes it’s provided stability to the organisation and a platform to then look at the recruitment of our CEO, and take a slightly backward step to allow the CEO to implement the strategies that we had set forward for the future.

How important is recruitment for a board?

[It’s important] to attract people with legal and financial backgrounds. So our treasurer, for example, we were able to attract a financial accountant who could give us better scrutiny and oversight of our accounts, and to really sort the budgets out and our finances out so that we could get that platform to move forward, but also to create that sustainability and viability of Youth Action. While I deal with budgets in my job I’m not an accountant, I don’t have that skill set and to have that specialist knowledge on the board really strengthens our ability to have good governance and to exercise our due diligence as a board.

And also having a legal representative on the board, being able to attract pro bono assistance, especially during the constitutional changes, they are skill sets we wouldn’t necessarily be able to draw from in the sector. Now, in terms of people with government policy experience and marketing experience, we’ve got a good balance on the board. We’ve got a balance of people who have sector experience but we’ve also got that balance of people with corporate and specialist expertise and knowledge.

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

Implementing change. We were able to initiate the changes required to move the organisation forward and to put us in a position where we were then able to go into the recruitment stage for the CEO – attracting and recruiting a good CEO who was then able to have the passion and drive to move the organization forward. Those hard yards at the beginning and making the tough decisions at times – it’s not a nice decision to make positions redundant – but to make those hard decisions was the highlight because, as a peak body, we’re in a really good place in terms of our relationship with government and the relationship with our members.

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

We’ve got a federal election coming up, so making sure that we present and represent young people to government and the different parties to put youth issues onto the agenda. Part of that is doing a national youth survey not for us to come up with the issues but so young people can come up with those issues, and then to strongly advocate to the politicians and parties so that youth issues are heard.

There is a major reform coming up for the majority of our organisational members, so ensuring that we represent our members during the process and we influence the best interest of our members to governance for that reform [is another key issue]. At the moment we’ve got 184 organisational members and there’s 520 individual members who we represent.

In terms of governance the priorities of the board are to ensure that we’re financially stable, and to support the CEO so she’s able to carry out the strategic directions that we set.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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