Board learning

What do citizen advocacy board members -- especially new ones -- really need to know? And what is the best way to learn it?

This discussion is located on the Citizen Advocacy Network website,

in the section on articles, discussions and policies.

The questions above were circulated to board contacts in the Citizen Advocacy Network in early 2002. The following responses were received.


Response from John Armstrong, President, Citizen Advocacy Sunbury and Districts

Our program has had a very stable board for many years, so the issue of what new and existing board members might need to know has really only been explored in the last three years as a number of new board members have been recruited. One aspect is how board orientation fits into the wider issue of board recruitment. For example, our program is beginning to move into supporting relationships in non-English speaking communities, and so we want to recruit some new board members from those communities that can help us in that endeavour.

So having established the characteristics we really need in a new board member - and presuming we have found someone that fits that bill, we prepare a board member manual, that includes the usual things, but especially:

1) A CAPE manual

2) a copy of the last CAPE

3) A copy of Wolf's article on Assumptions underlying citizen advocacy

We also conduct several sessions with the prospective board member that cover the following topics:

1) The need for identification with people with an intellectual disability (in our case)

2) Allegiance with those people

3) Understanding the potency of Citizen Advocacy in bringing freely given relationships to people

4) Support the program, which includes:
a. "Own" the program
b. Select the "right" coordinator (when this is an issue)
c. Regard the principles of Citizen Advocacy and the key office activities as providing the best chance for building freely given relationships (and each is covered)
d. The need for support and supervision of the coordinator(s) and their work and how that might be done
e. The board's role in evaluating what the program is doing - regularly and systematically
f. A look at activities of "internal renewal" within the program

5) The need to remain active in the larger CA Movement

6) The urgency of CA in a context of the effects of world events on lowly people

This might take several sessions to get through and involve the Chair (me), the coordinator and any number of existing board members. This serves as a revision for all of us as well.

The sessions are designed for us both (the prospective board member and us) to gauge whether this is for them, and includes a chance to attend at least one regular board meeting. They are then elected to the board, or nominated at the next annual general meeting - which ever comes first. Sounds pretty formal - but its actually pretty relaxed in practice.


Response from Illawarra Citizen Advocacy

At our February 2002 meeting, the Illawarra CA board discussed what board members really need to know. It was sort of a brainstorm and hasn't been processed further. Here's what came up (alphabetical order):

* confidentiality issues

* conflict of interest

* corporate responsibilities

* how CA fits into the picture of other forms of advocacy

* knowledge of local organisations (for purposes of recruiting advocates, etc.)

* meeting people in the programme

* principles of CA

* roles of secretary, treasurer, etc.


* terminology: acronyms, definitions (ask when necessary).

We also talked about how board members learn. The consensus was that a variety of methods were and should be involved, including:

* being a teacher (learning by explaining things to others)

* board meetings (including "learning and renewal", a 30-minute segment in meetings when we can fit it in)

* board training days

* buddies (each new board member is invited to have an experienced member as a "buddy")

* reading

* social outings


Response from Maurice Maneschi, Honorary Treasurer, Citizen Advocacy City West

We are currently inducting a person interested in being a board member. Our process is a bit informal at present. We usually have a lunch with the prospective member, another board member and the co-ordinator. If that goes well, we invite them to a board meeting. The board then votes on whether to accept them onto the board at the end of the meeting. (This vote has not been defeated yet!) They are given a copy of the constitution, CAPE and a brochure. We also relieve them of $20 (as only members can sit on the board.) Finally they are booked onto the next advocate orientation.

Our expectation is that a new board member sits and watches for a few months. (At the last board meeting, I said this period was 12 months, but the other board members disagreed said 3 months was better.) The constitution requires every board member to sit on at least one subcommittee. Within three years of joining, every board member takes a few days off work for an SRV. In theory we do a PASSING next, but no one on our board has done one!

A key factor to managing a board for us is maintaining a focus on the bigger issues of Citizen Advocacy. To allow us to do this, we have every third board meeting (quarterly effectively) as a planning meeting. This is held in a board member's home with wine and everyone bringing a "plate". We avoid all but essential business at these meetings. We set a question the meeting before and tackle it. Previous topics have been: "How do we get more board members?", "How do we hire to ensure we can make our annual match quota?", "What is required in follow-along?", "How closely should we stick to our recruitment plan?", "How is paid advocacy different from Citizen Advocacy?", etc. At these sessions, the chair makes sure that everybody gets an opportunity to say something and that every contribution is welcomed and considered. The minutes just record any outcomes agreed to.

At one planning meeting we discussed management of board members, and agreed that every board member should have an annual "performance" review with the chairperson. This would be an opportunity to applaud successes, air grievances and agree on goals. However, we haven't implemented this yet :-(

On a personal note, there were three events in my career that empowered me as a CA board member. The first was when I joined the subcommittee organising our first CAPE, the second was attending a three-day SRV and the last (and most profound) was being on a CAPE team. Perhaps I should add to the list the (eventual) resignation of all board members senior to me, but I couldn't wish that on anyone!