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Wednesday 08 April 2009


NZAF answers: Homophobes, staff and money

Posted in: HIV
By Jay Bennie - 5th February 2009

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NZAF Exec Director Rachael Le Mesurier
Five years on from her appointment as Executive Director of the NZ AIDS Foundation, Rachael Le Mesurier takes stock and addresses some of the allegations which seem to eternally swim around the NZAF. In this second of three articles based on a face to face interview she addresses a couple of issues raised at November's AGM, plus recurring allegations about staff discontent and departure, and claims the changes to the Wellness Fund have been to the detriment of needy people with HIV.



In the lead up to the NZAF’s Annual General Meetings its common for word to go around that a number of people with issues about some aspect of the NZAF are going to ask “some serious questions,” or that “it’s time the organisation was held to account.”

What generally happens is that none or few of the issues are raised, partly because the moment has passed and partly because of the firewall which separates the governance aspects of the Foundation from its day to day operation. Operational matters are not what the AGM is about.

So for all the indignation which brewed late last year, the only issues raised from the floor were about access for homophobic religious zealots to HIV counseling and about financial transparency. Neither were new issues, both had been raised the previous year.

After five years the Foundation’s executive director has some perspective on the AGMs. “For me the AGM went well. It produced two great elected trustees, two gay men, one of whom is Maori, who I think are going to have a significant input for the Trust Board. It went smoothly, as in we didn't have anybody pulling out, we didn't have anything falling over, we didn't have gaps in the process or the rules. So it went efficiently. And I'm really pleased to see we had more than four people turn up. I'll never forget my first AGM for the AIDS Foundation in 2003 and there were three people there. It indicates interest and support.”

With discontent still bubbling in some quarters of the gay communities was the AGM a non-event? “I wouldn't want to call it a non-event because AGMs are actually an opportunity to report back, and I think the new format of the Annual Report reports back really well, with the content and also in the way in which it's delivered. For me it indicated that we are moving into a new way of approaching communication - hopefully better. We can always get better.”


IS THE NZAF DOOR OPEN TO HOMOPHOBES?

Calum Bennachie, a Wellington gay activist and occasional GayNZ.com contributor, has observed that the new Trust Deed left open the possibility of the spiritual support allowed for in the Deed coming from the anti-gay religious right.

“I can see what Calum’s doing in principle. I'm aware that the Trust Deed took a lot of work to make changes, and to make a further change, if the membership had taken it on, would have been a bit difficult, but achievable.” This was Bennachie’s second airing of the issue at an AGM and each meeting voted not to change the wording.

So, what would Le Mesurier do if Brian Tamaki or Family First demanded access to HIV Positive people through the Foundation? “Fundamentally, you can't work with the AIDS Foundation if you're homophobic. You can't go against our core principles of support for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender communities. Any organisation would flounder before it got as far as approaching us. Their own membership wouldn't necessarily want to be working closely with us. People aren't competing for souls. They're not fighting to say 'we want those who are living with HIV to be on our books'. The Churches are emptying out, realistically. If we're talking about the Fundamentalist Churches, they're really happy tithing the poor and the weak in South Auckland, and I think that we have to focus on where our biggest enemy and our biggest challenge is. And frankly, right now, that's HIV, and a large part of that is how we work with gay men who are choosing not to use condoms. So that's where the focus is for us.”

Using the tireless work of former Catholic Priest Michael Bancroft as an example, Le Mesurier believes “there's plenty of evidence of good, strong, supportive spiritual and pastoral care going on, for those who've chosen and wanted it."


OPENING THE BOOKS

For years G&T radio show presenter Ross Stevenson has been agitating for more transparency in the way the Foundation annually reports its financial affairs, unhappy with what he sees as a lack of detail. Where an organisation spends its money is, after all, surely a guide to its priorities and operations. Le Mesurier has clearly become frustrated with his repeated requests for more detailed information.

“Having worked in far more NGOs than I believe Ross or his friends have,” says Le Mesurier, “we provide far more transparency than the majority of NGOs. The Charities Commission, in what I think is a great move, only last year made it a requirement that you have to publish a certain amount of information publicly to get charitable status. Prior to that, Trusts didn't have to publish a thing. But we always have. With no legal requirement the AIDS Foundation always has.”

Le Mesurier says the Foundation’s widespread dissemination of the accounts also sets it head and shoulders above most comparable organisations. “All of our members get the full audited accounts. A lot of organisations don't publish and make the full audited accounts available for their members... they'll make a summary available through their Annual Report. I can go to all those organizations and get their Annual Reports and show him the summarised version that goes to the members. The organizations I'm a member of I get the summarised version - I don't get ten pages from the organisations I'm a member of.
I'm happy to get these for Ross, but frankly I want to focus on HIV, on the work that's in front of me...

Le Mesurier pauses, calms herself, clearly frustrated by Stevenson’s terrier-like tenacity over the issue - which went ballistic early 2007 when he and fellow G&T presenter Lexie Matheson broadcast a weekly campaign against the Foundation and its Executive Director, a campaign which somehow never came to a conclusion but reached some sort of peak, or nadir, with the ‘Tell us the Foundation’s secrets Rachael!’ live interview.

Le Mesurier sighs, sure that whatever she says or provides will not satisfy Stevenson in his quest for his financial holy grail. “We have made available for Ross the profit and loss balance statement, which is actually more than what most people would get. I'd welcome him to stand for election on the Trust Board. But even on the Trust Board he won't necessarily get more information. But you can tell from our Annual Report right now for '07-'08, we split up how much goes into health promotion, how much goes into positive health, how much goes into research, and the small proportion - which I'm very proud of, is around about 17% - which is administrative overheads. The industry average for administrative overheads is around about 24-25%  and at Massey University it's more like 50%. So I struggle with Ross on a range of levels.”


EMPLOYEE RELATIONS

It’s just possible that the period of resignations and appointments during the controversial structural revamp of what used to be called the Gay Men’s Health team, and the rumoured involvement of the employment court in some of the departures, is at the core of these concerns. The theory goes that due to poor management of employees discontented staff have taken action against the Foundation which surely has created legal and maybe payout costs, money which should be spent on HIV education and prevention.

“We've had no Employment Tribunal cases,” says Le Mesurier. “But I know what they are talking about, it’s mediation. I'm not able to disclose how many we've had, or how many there've been previously. I am legally unable to.” Not even the number? “You've got to clarify what you mean. We've had no court cases. We have not won or lost anything. We've had mediation, and there was mediation that went on before, I know that, but how many were there? I don't know, so we can't do any comparison.”

But have any expenses been associated with that? All Le Mesurier says she is allowed to say is that in any disputes the Foundation took advice to ensure that it was always within the law and that as a responsible organisation “following good business practice” the Foundation has comprehensive insurance arrangements. She says any detail about the outcome of staff issues is subject to confidentiality agreements, but she challenges her detractors to front up to her with hard information. “What I'm curious about is where are their examples of poor management, of bad employment relations, of bad HR policy. Those are some of the things I would be quite interested to hear and understand if people were concerned about. We employ around 50 people so it's not going to be uncommon for any business this size to occasionally have staff who are unhappy, and occasionally have staff who are not appropriate. And very, very rarely staff who have behaved illegally. Now, as good employers we have to take action when we see poor performance or illegal behavior.”

Le Mesurier is skeptical about any organisation which claims to have no internal staff complaints. “Does that mean that the staff are silenced? Does that mean people are shut down out of fear? If you have an organisation with no complaints, does that mean 'great, wonderful', or does that mean they are actually shut down and frightened? If you get a lot of complaints - healthy complaints, not so healthy complaints - does that mean the organisation's crap? Or does it actually have really good processes that welcome and support those types of concerns?”

Is the NZ AIDS Foundation a crap organisation? “No, it's definitely not. I can say that with having worked only in community-based, charity-based NGO-based organisations all my work life. I know of the ones that I would say have major problems. This is not one of them. And I can go from baseline all the way up to the board. We're not perfect, but one of the things I think is most rewarding is when we have new staff who've been here six months to a year we they say to other colleagues 'you don't know how lucky you are' working here.”

Of course the unkind might say, and in fact some do, that Le Mesurier gets that reaction because she has now surrounded herself with ‘yes men’ or at least people who think the way she does. We’ll come to that in part three of our interview. Suffice to say its not a view she supports.


STAFF UNION RATES NZAF HIGHLY

For an independent view of the NZAF’s employee relations I spoke with Peter Shannon, Senior Organiser for the Service and Foodworkers’ union which represents NZAF staff. He has only handled the NZAF for the past twelve months, but there have been a number of high profile departures from the Foundation in that time which have set tongues wagging. Shannon says employee staff relations have seemed “pretty good.” In fact he says he rates the NZAF more highly than most employers he deals with. “There have been a few fleeting difficult moments, he says, “but those have been based on personality issues.”

Shannon says he operates an open door policy under which NZAF staff can approach him easily and directly. “It’s the best way to ensure that small problems don’t escalate into big issues,” he says, adding that he has a “good relationship” with both management and staff.


THE NEW WELLNESS FUND

Moving on, there’s that nagging suggestion, albeit from only a couple of people but they are vocal and influential in some quarters, that changes four years ago in the administration of the Wellness Fund(s), a donation-based source of support finance for needy people with HIV, mean money is harder to get and handed out less than impartially. At heart the change saw several regionally-based administered funds amalgamated into one nationally coordinated entity.

Le Mesurier has a fairly shrewd idea of the identity of at least one person who has voiced the criticisms. “That individual's criticism would be absolutely appropriate five, six, seven, eight years, ago, because it was then very difficult to get a grant out of the Wellness Fund. You could go to one regional manager, they'd say no for one reason, you'd go to another regional manager, they'd say no for another. No application form. No process. No transparency. No appeals process. One of them gave you a grant for a massage. Another gave it for buying a lightbulb. It was unclear.”

Behind this piecemeal approach a considerable amount of money was sitting unused, says Le Mesurier. “The Trust Board from 2006 said: ‘We have something like $150,000 Wellness Fund money sitting in the bank.’ We didn't touch it, couldn't touch it, it was Wellness Fund. But they said ‘that's appalling,’ and quite rightly so. So what [NZAF Positive Health manager] Eamonn [Smythe] did was go out to the positive organizations and positive individuals, through quite a comprehensive anonymous survey, to ask what they wanted. And basically the new fund is what the majority wanted.”

“The majority wanted it to be health-based. They did not want it to help people with their house moving costs because WINZ can do that. Some have been very unhappy that those who are wealthy could get a grant for lipoatrophy/lipodystrophy treatment. They don't like that. But a good number of people did say that's what we should do, so therefore that's what we've done.”

Since then the Wellness Fund has paid out “in the region of $130,000” of that $150,000. “It's gone to positive people, it's not sitting in the bank. It has significantly helped HIV positive people who have had disfiguring lipodystrophy. We have had reports about what a significant change in self-esteem it's meant. So much so that we spent $100,000 on that treatment alone.”

Handing out money to ‘the wealthy’ isn’t necessarily going to win the Fund any friends. Does Le Mesurier believe access to Wellness Fund dollars should be income tested? “Personally? I don't actually have a view, to be frank. I think it's up to the positive communities. It's up to people who have a view and understand more about that.” Some positive people, she says, “were very clear they wanted it to be means-based but we haven't gone too far down that track.”

Grants assisting with small costs associated with GP visits were retained under the new Wellness Fund model, she says. “People still wanted that, but they also asked for a travel grant, to be able to help with conferences in New Zealand. That's new. The one-off medical grant, that's new. It's now far more flexible that it ever was.”

Some of the criticism of the new administration of the Wellness Fund comes from Wellingtonians who feel that their money has been siphoned north. “I have always said that we have always been able to identify the Wellington money in the Wellness Fund, but what was really clear was that we never ran out for anybody in Wellington. They never got turned down because we ran out of money. What was most crucial was that there were very few people in Wellington making applications. There were eight individuals who had almost weekly applications. I know that in one year $18,000 went on those eight people. What we've now got is a hell of a lot more people getting the grants in Wellington.”

Le Mesurier says the new system allows some funds to be accessed by people in regions which are historically unable to raise their own funds. She cites the East Coast/Gisborne area as an example. “If we just go on a 'you only keep the money in the place that you raised it', then anyone outside of the four urban areas would never be able to get a Wellness Fund grant.”

Perhaps the most extreme and personal allegation voiced to GayNZ.com recently about the administration of the Wellness Fund is that Le Mesurier herself influences the funding outcomes. “If Rachel decides money isn’t to be given out then it isn’t given out,” the accusation goes.

Le Mesurier denies any influence or involvement in application assessment or grants. She says there is a clear process for impartially assessing applications in the light of the funding criteria. “It's actually very straightforward. You get it if you meet the criteria. So there's no decision. It's kept very confidential. One of the admin staff comes in to do it and nobody else gets to see it. That person assesses if an applicant meets the criteria. For example, has a person had a grant before? Do they need it for medical things? Is there a doctor's [report]. If those criteria aren't met, then it’s “no.” If there's any grey area, like they haven't supplied the right information, we don't say "no". We go back and say "can you supply more to go with the application form." Very few people have been refused, and quite often it's been because it's their second application, against the rules, or they're asking for something that doesn't fit the criteria. That's the only way in which it gets turned down. That criteria was sorted out by positive people."


In the final part of this interview we will tackle a few loose ends with the NZAF’s Executive Director and take her through the goals and plans laid down in the Foundation’s 2005-2010 Strategic Plan, formulated shortly after her arrival in the job. We consider if the results are in line with the stated goals, if have they been surpassed or is progress lagging.

[Editor's note: This second part of our series was delayed getting published due to day job work pressures on our volunteer crew. We will try to bring you part 3 more quickly!]



Jay Bennie - 5th February 2009