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Shining a Light on Faith-Based Governance

20 October 2017 at 1:41 pm
Wendy Williams
The governance challenges facing faith-based organisations are coming under scrutiny in an upcoming conference set to coincide with the delivery of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Wendy Williams | 20 October 2017 at 1:41 pm


Shining a Light on Faith-Based Governance
20 October 2017 at 1:41 pm

The governance challenges facing faith-based organisations are coming under scrutiny in an upcoming conference set to coincide with the delivery of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Faith-Based Governance and Dispute Resolution Conference, convened by The Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University, aims to address best practice governance to meet the challenges of increased regulatory scrutiny and heightened community expectations.

In particular it hopes to bring together faith-based communities to consider the implications and their response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria, which highlighted the need for organisations to improve their responses to vulnerable groups.

Professor Kathy Laster, the director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, told Pro Bono News while many charities had been working to improve their governance for a number of years, it was “crunch time”.

“The government is going to receive the report, prepare a response and who knows what that will be, it may be extensive regulation, it may be recommendations and they want to get in early, so it is a chance to consider where they have been, what improvements they have made and to learn from each other,”  Laster said.

As part of the conference commentators from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities will discuss their individual responses and strategies going forward.

Laster said faith-based organisations, which make up the largest category of charity in Australia, were facing a number of challenges around good governance.

“One of them is scale,” she said.

“So some of the small ones rely largely on good will and volunteers and [they think] governance is ‘for other people’, because everybody is well meaning and everyone has the best of intentions and they don’t see themselves in the same framework as say a larger charity or a larger corporate entity where governance is sort of de-rigueur now.

“So there is that element of it, to say it applies to everybody.”

Laster said there were also problems around conflicts of interest.

“For instance in some of the religious schools, the issue that emerged also in the royal commission is some of the people that are charged with, or who are accused of bad behaviour of various sorts, are simultaneously congregates, or parishioners, heads of families, their kids go to the same school,” she said.

“If you try to prosecute, or if it becomes known in any way in that community, you are actually stigmatising an entire family.

“So there are a range of conflict of interest issues that are peculiar to small communities and also to faith communities because it is such a lifestyle issue that affects pretty much every part of their lives.”

Laster said a scandal could also have an impact on issues of trust, something the conference will address in the session When the Sh..candal Hits the Fan: Risk, Reputation and Relationship Management, which will consider a “super-scenario” where everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.

“I think there is a range of issues around good will and trust,” Laster said.

“Firstly [when a scandal hits] it fractures really important social networks and we saw that with a number of the complainants.

“People who in a sense ‘betray the inner circle’ of the community are then ostracised, so the trust that they have that they will always be part of the community [is broken], it is people who make donations, it is the wider community who otherwise support the good work of Salvos or others, think ‘what am I actually supporting?’ That is really difficult. And it is also a sense of self, that sense of seeing yourself as doing a great job or worthwhile job which is shattered, that is internal to the community.

“It creates a whole crisis of confidence.”

She said many organisations were being forced to reframe their history.

“For many of these organisations it’s how they see themselves, that they have done great work when government wasn’t there or for people that otherwise no one else wanted to help… and that’s how they have portrayed themselves, and understood themselves,” she said.

“All of a sudden they are having to look back at their archives, they’re having to look back at what job they were doing and what the downsides were. It is very similar to our previous approach to Indigenous history.

“So I think it is about a kind of loss of naivety for a lot of the community and a time of stocktaking.

“One of the important things is that charities make up 85 per cent of service delivery in Australia, so they actually do pretty cool, important, vital work and it is now about recognising both the significance and then how to deal with issues of accountability and transparency and coming to terms with this whole change.”

Laster said it was part of a much wider problem.

“We are looking at social transformation across the board and it applies to all institutions; police, court, everywhere, family violence and all of these sorts of issues were at least under the carpet, if not actually denied,” she said.

“So in a sense to single out charities is probably wrong when looking at social transformation but the important point is that charities are part of that social transformation.”

She said she hoped by making the conference cross-faith it would highlight the extent to which many of the challenges faced by these organisations were part of a shared experience.

“Sometimes people in those communities see themselves as somewhat isolated … so bringing everyone together is really [about] that shared experience that says there are some people that are slightly further along in that governance journey or in that history journey or these are solutions or options that are available to all of us and we have to talk about it,” she said.

“So it is dialogue, it is openness, sharing of knowledge and information and experience and it is about restructuring and reconnecting community.”

Secular and religious leaders and board members of faith-based organisations, dispute resolution practitioners, government services and regulators, and academics with research interests in the intersection of law, religion, culture and diversity are encouraged to attend.

The two day conference will take place on 5 and 6 December 2017 in Melbourne.

For more information visit the website.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.


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