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Wednesday 08 October 2008


NZAF Board: Flawed and in need of change?

Posted in: HIV
By Jay Bennie - 3rd November 2007

Larry_Jenkins.jpg
Larry Jenkins
After fourteen months as the NZ AIDS Foundation's fundraising and events manager, Larry Jenkins has left, alleging poor management and staff disillusionment - and hoping to be elected to the Foundation's Trust Board to enact some fundamental changes.

Although a number of high profile staff have left the NZAF in recent months, Jenkins is, for whatever reason, the only one to publicly express his negativity towards the organisation - and in his run up to Board elections in three weeks' time he doesn't mince words.

Jenkins believes the Foundation is a fundamentally flawed organisation, especially at board and chief executive level. He is highly critical of its approach to staff relations. And to top it all off he believes that the recent restructuring of its Gay Men's Health unit has been ill advised and badly executed. "The restructure has been a disaster. It has caused a lot of ill-feeling, and a lot of pain and agony amongst the staff, which I'm just not able to sit and watch anymore," he says.

Larry Jenkins came to the NZAF after a period as a freelance events manager and from organising the Bay Of Islands Arts Festival. He is a career musician and helped organise concerts in Northland. He joined as a fundraiser and events manager, with responsibilities also for memberships and volunteers, and says he initially enjoyed the job and the working environment. Highlights he recalls fondly include World AIDS Day 2006 and this year's Big Gay Out which he organised. He says he also enjoyed involvement with smaller events and helping to raise the profile of the NZAF, but acknowledges that he was pushed to cover all his responsibilities in the four days a week for which he was employed. "A lot of the work just had to wait until there was time to do it, he says, but "I really enjoyed the job when I first took it, I had the company of a lot of congenial people who were all dedicated to what they were doing and they were there because they had a vested interest in the gay community and they were seen to educate, and to promote the idea of safe sex."

Jenkins feels that given the conditions and the time constraints he was successful in his job "and it gave me a profile in the gay community which it was pleasant to have... I've become extremely fond of the people that I worked with, and I've never worked with a better workforce." But that contentment did not last. "Due to the restructure all of that fell away and we've been mostly concerned with the restructure for the past six months. It has not gone well and it has not made a lot of people happy, and we've lost a lot of key people in the process. Since April the atmosphere has been deadly around the national office, so many people have gone or come in, so many people have resigned or been made redundant, the atmosphere is not really comfortable."

For the first six months, Jenkins says, he had a good, if slightly distant, relationship with the Board, and in particular it's Chair. "The board was new, and the only contact I had with them at first was at the Annual General Meeting. Then I had a lot of contact with the Chairman of the Board, because he was required to come and talk at events. I wrote speeches for him, and other board members that had to be present at things. There was no reason, really, to have any contact with the board at first, because things seemed to be going well. But from the time of the restructure on, the board decided to let the Executive Director deal with everything, and they would not discuss any of this with the staff, even when the staff was very upset and wanted to talk to them, we directly requested to meet with the board without the Executive Director, but they refused to do that."


"ON THE WRONG TRACK"

Jenkins has been critical of the Foundation's upper management for some months, but only felt he could go on public record on GayNZ.com once his resignation, "on principle," was effective, at 5pm last Wednesday, although he did somewhat spill the beans a few days earlier in a radio interview with fellow NZAF critics Lexie Matheson and Ross Stevenson.

"I see the AIDS Foundation going down the wrong track. It's not serving its constituency as it should," he says, positive that his view is backed up by the numbers of staff who have left the NZAF recently. "Since three months ago, we've had at least eleven people leave the organisation, for one reason or another. Most of those are resignations or redundancies. The redundancies are [related to] the restructuring. The resignations are because people don't want to work there anymore."

Jenkins is sure that the reason for those resignations is failure by the NZAF board to engage directly with the management of the organisation or with staff members, the board's misplaced confidence in the Executive Director and its members' lack of commitment to their role. "I think the staff have lost faith in the management. They've lost faith [because] the board will not directly deal with them."

The remarkable criticisms and allegations that Jenkins is making against the existing board and its executive director are serious and far-reaching, striking into the very heart of how the only significantly resourced NZ organisation addressing the HIV and AIDS epidemic amongst gay men is doing its job. Outgoing board Chair, Hoani Jeremy Lambert, who is not seeking re-election, seems variously bewildered and angered by most of Jenkins' criticisms.

As a director, Lambert says he is unable to comment on individual staff members' resignations: "I'm not privvy to the reasons people would want to resign." As for the redundancies, "it's never pleasant having to lose people from an organisation. I know that there was a process that the Executive Director engaged in around those redundancies."

Jenkins is critical what he sees as a lack of rapport between the Board and Foundation staff. "The board only wants to deal with its staff through the Executive Director and, however that may be policy, and it's not policy to my knowledge, it is a very big mistake in this instance, because of the staff's lack of confidence in the Executive Director."

Jenkins refers to a letter of no confidence in the NZAF's chief executive, Rachael Le Mesurier, presented to the Board in late August. That letter said, in part, the signatories had "no confidence in the executive director... to manage the organisation and the staff with integrity and in a professional, structured, reasonable and humane manner." Board Chair Hoani Jeremy Lambert publicly stated two weeks later that a Board investigation of the complaints had resulted in continued confidence in Le Mesurier, and that “on the basis of information supplied, no further formal action is required."

This is an area Lambert feels he can address. The relationship whereby formal responsibilities between the Board and operational staff are channelled through the Executive Director is indeed policy, he says. "In any organisation that you care to look at you will find they have a delegation to the executive director to deal with all matters relating to the employment of staff other than the employment of the actual executive director." In essence, the board employs the executive director, "and that sets the relationship between governance and operations."

Although the number of staff who actually signed the letter has never been clearly confirmed by the Board, Jenkins is adamant that virtually every Auckland staff member willingly put their names to it. "On the day, everybody in the National Office, apart from two people, signed it. And then the staff at the Burnett Centre wanted to sign it, so they all joined, so in all, there were eighteen or twenty people who signed that letter. And the board will not communicate with any one of them directly."

"The board did receive a letter, says Lambert. "Many of the names were illegible and so we weren't willing to take that letter as any indication... we weren't willing to take a 'poll' of staff but we did take the matter very seriously and we engaged in an internal process to find out whether there were issues that the Board needed to deal with. At the end of that process we had no reason not to continue to have full confidence in the Executive Director. We also then made a number of suggestions, together with [Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier] about how we could adjust things to try to address some of the things that the staff raised through that process."


DECISION MAKERS & ACCOUNTABILITY

Jenkins acknowledges that he is unaware of how past boards of the NZAF have operated, "so I don't know if this is a recent development or if this is the way it always is. But this board has been totally and utterly removed from the people who work for the Foundation and who ostensibly, according to the constitution, work for the Board, and the Board doesn't seem to want to have any hands on experience of the people who actually do the work." Would the Executive Director's position become untenable if the staff reported freely to the Board as well as the chief executive? "I don't know about untenable, but it would make the staff a lot happier."

Asked to respond to this direct criticism of the Board, Lambert quietly bristles. "I totally dispute that. I take my role as a Chair and as a governor very seriously. Whenever I can I make visits into the national office and interact with the staff, within the boundaries of my role as a governor of the organisation. Whenever we have board meetings we try to invite staff members in to present to the board in their area of operations, to make sure that we have a good idea of what the issues are that they are facing. And so I think Larry is wrong about that."


PAINFUL RESTRUCTURING

At the core of Jenkins' criticism of the Foundation's Executive Director seems to be the decision-making processes which have led to the most significant internal restructuring the NZAF has undertaken since its inception over twenty years ago.

For several years the NZAF has been advised in open community forums that its Gay Men's Health staff, particularly those based in Auckland, must engage more with men who have sex with men. At one forum, its staff were admonished to "get out from behind your desks and connect with your community." The forums, a Le Mesurier initiative, were instituted against a background of a frightening resurgence of new HIV infections contracted by gay men in New Zealand, a trend echoed in other western nations and for which the underlying reasons are only slowly emerging and any solutions seem some way off. "As I've said in the past, we've had demands placed on us to respond radically to the growing numbers of infections," says Lambert, "and the restructurings, which unfortunately did involve redundancies, were the organisation's response to that call."

"I don't think anything's been explained to anybody, says Jenkins. "I think the restructure was decided upon completely behind closed doors, and it was presented as a fait accompli. It was presented as 'a good idea because Rachael said it was a good idea,' not because it was tested or tried or even questioned by anybody. But the [Gay Men's Health team], who were the direct victims of the restructure, questioned it a lot, and they got no answers. They got told 'this is the way it is - live with it.' All of their suggestions in the restructuring process, or attempts at making suggestions, were completely and utterly ignored."

GayNZ.com's attempts to interview two high-profile Gay Men's Health team members after their recent departures from the NZAF were unsuccessful, but Lambert says the board stands by its executive director. "The Board has full confidence in the process that Rachael used to implement the restructuring," he says. "I am obviously not privvy to conversations that might have occurred between the staff and the executive director about the restructuring. But I would be very surprised if overt statements like the ones that [Jenkins] has raised are true."


A FUNDRAISING, GIVING, BOARD

Jenkins' unhappiness with what he sees as board intransigence and dictatorial management underpins his decision to stand for election to the Board at the 24 November AGM. "I think that I can serve the community better by serving on the board," he says. And he is already signalling that he will try to institute fundamental changes from the top down. "The first thing I want is for the board to become a fundraising body, because every other board is founded with that idea, and I think this board has avoided that opportunity by saying 'we have a fundraiser' - but the board has to be involved in it."

Not only would Jenkins' Board be a fundraising body, but a 'giving board' too, a concept he believes would give a better impression when the NZAF is applying to funding organisations. "I would also like to see the Board become a board that gives to the organisation, because I think one or two of them do give regularly, but not as policy. And in most places that you go to ask for funds, they ask 'is your board a giving board?' And they make the assumption that if the board doesn't care enough... why should they?" He would try for a regular 'gift base,' "even small amounts every month or every year, at least the board would seem to have some sport of vested interest in it that way."

This 'become a giving board' suggestion bewilders Lambert. "I think this board is already an extremely giving board. If they don't give in monetary terms they certainly give of their time. We are dealing with board members who are extremely capable, many of whom charge out in their professions at hourly rates." Lambert puts forward his own contribution as an example. "Prior to moving into my current job I worked in consultancy where I was charging $200 an hour. I have calculated that in my busiest year on the board, which was my first year in the chair, I contributed just under one thousand hours in that year. And so I think that my contribution, worked out in monetary terms at nearly $200,000, would be a considerable contribution to the organisation. Over and above that I do not believe in taking any monetary gain from the Foundation... I am on record as donating the $3,000 per year honorarium the Chair is entitled to, to community organisations including the NZAF." Lambert believes own level of contribution to the Foundation is not dissimilar from his fellow board members. "I know that there are board members who give in other ways. I find that statement to be an extraordinary statement. And that's not to mention the sacrifice our partners make in order to allow the board members to give the level of contribution that they do to the organisation."

Whilst Lambert says he doesn't dispute that Jenkins' experience in fundraising may mean that he has been involved with other organisations' boards and alternative ways of giving to their organisations, "I have no doubt that the contributions that our board make in terms of their time and expertise would be well above any monetary donations that a governor could be expected to make."


A MORE RESPONSIBLE AND ACTIVE BOARD

Jenkins wants to see the Board members be less passive, to use their experience and expertise more. "The board needs to re-think its purposes and the reasons people come onto the board… because they have skills, yes, but they don't always employ those skills - nine times out of ten, they're not even asked to employ those skills. They sit as a board, right now, it seems, just to approve what the Executive Director does. And I think they should take more interest in what goes on."

Not surprisingly, Lambert disagrees with Jenkins interpretation of the board members' work: "That's just wrong." He says the current board members have been using their skills and their expertise at all times, "that's why they were appointed to the board." Is there any situation in which the executive director could make autocratic decisions, present them to the board and have the board members just roll over? "No. That has not happened and does not happen."

If Jenkins so clearly believes the Board, which is formally Le Mesurier's employer, is lacking involvement in the process of day to day decision making of the organisation, historically preferring to rubber stamp her decisions, does he believe that after the Board is straightened out to his satisfaction the Executive Director should be sent packing? He won't go quite that far but would "make management accountable to the board, at last... and not able to carry out policy and then announce it to the board and the board say 'yes well done'." He would like to see the board and the Executive Director work in tandem. "I would like to see the policy developed between the board and the Executive Director, and however much time that takes, it does make the Executive Director accountable to somebody. As it stands now, I don't think the Executive Director is, in actuality, accountable to anyone."

Once again, outgoing Board chair Lambert is at odds with candidate Jenkins. "That is just incorrect. What we need to remember is that the NZ AIDS Foundation board is responsible for developing policy at a number of levels. We develop governance policies, we develop Executive Director/Board limitations policies, we have policies around the relationship between the director and the board. And then we have what we call operational level policies, which employees will be familiar with. These are usually strictly the domain of the executive director. So policies in an organisation as complex as ours are diverse, they work at a number of levels, at some levels it is appropriate for the executive director and the board to work in partnership. Certainly you wouldn't want the board and the executive director working too closely in policy decisions relating too closely to the manner in which the executive director works. So policy making is complex. There isn't one easy solution and certainly you have to make sure that you have the right people at the table at the right time and I believe that this board has done this."

Lambert believes that in the past couple of years the Board has had a near-ideal mix of skills. "In my time on the board I think that the NZ AIDS Foundation has been extremely well served, by having a mixture of accountancy, legal, communications, general practitioner and research expertise that would have made its board the pride of any organisation."


POPULARITY VS SKILLS

But, if the board is currently well skilled and involved, Lambert is concerned about its future, as it moves from an 'appointments' basis to open elections for positions. "I think the challenge for the board of the NZ AIDS Foundation in the future is how they are going to actually achieve the level of expertise they have recently managed to attract, through elections. That is a challenge the new board is going to have to face because through elections you can end up electing those who are the most popular and not necessarily those who are going to bring the diverse range of skills that a board requires."

In the end, it has to be asked: isn't Jenkins' direct and comprehensive criticism of the Board and his old boss, and his move to join its numbers to make fundamental changes, just the venting of frustration by an ex-staff member who didn't get his own way and is about to visit his frustration on the board and boss he became disillusioned with? Isn't Larry Jenkins maybe the last of those who could not fit into the new environment and opted out? "No. It's not just hot-headed old queen Larry. There are a lot of other people who are very upset. There are going to be other resignations."


[GayNZ.com has asked to speak with the four other lower-key candidates for the five NZAF Trust Board vacancies, to discuss their backgrounds and hopes for the NZAF.]



Jay Bennie - 3rd November 2007