The added value of good governance for NGOs: a testimonial
The Corona crisis has had a huge impact on Artsen zonder Vakantie. It was an opportunity to adopt a more professional approach to the composition of the board of directors. We started with a self-assessment based on a tool developed by GUBERNA. We defined the competences required for our board and attributed a weighting factor to each topic. However, it is important not to rest on our laurels but to pay constant attention to innovation. In our sector, this means looking for new forms of cooperation in the field of knowledge exchange and new partners in the field and in Belgium
Can you introduce yourself and the context in which you carry out your mandate(s)?
Following a management career at various care institutions, I have been working as an independent consultant in the Belgian healthcare sector for about ten years. As such, I was often invited to boards of directors to explain specific issues.
For 8 years, I was a board member of ‘Artsen zonder Vakantie’, an NGO active in the health sector in 5 African countries. I became chairman of the board of directors in April 2019.
We have developed a sustainable, long-term partnership with around 40 hospitals. We work together to strengthen their medical and paramedical skills, as well as their organisational, technical and material skills. The aim is for these local hospitals to better assume their role in the healthcare system in order to provide quality care for their patients in often difficult circumstances. We achieve this exchange of knowledge thanks to the efforts of more than 400 (para)medical and technical volunteers (doctors, nurses,) and in collaboration with various local organisations and local actors.
Additionally, I have been an independent board member of Ziekenhuisnetwerk Gent since May 2020.
Why did you decide to become a director?
In my role as a consultant, I am regularly involved in the preparation of my clients' (care) strategy, in collaboration with the management and the board of directors. Once the management bodies have determined the strategy, I am often involved in its implementation.
Gradually, my interest in not only providing input and output, but also participating in the decision-making process has grown. I have also noticed that in some boards there are a number of directors who are less familiar with the core business of the organisation or with the principles of good governance. I wanted to try to contribute to this room for improvement. Hence my decision to become a director. I had some management experience, but the role of director is different. A good manager is not necessarily a good director and vice versa.
What impact did the current crisis have on your role of director?
The Corona crisis has had a huge impact on Artsen zonder Vakantie. Like many other organisations, we have not escaped a series of difficulties that have considerably disrupted our operations and forced us to reflect and redirect ourselves.
We had to decide to cancel all the missions planned for 2020. No volunteers have been able to leave for Africa since the beginning of the pandemic. Fortunately, we had been organising activities with local experts for quite some time, but even this was not easy under the given circumstances. So, there was a lot of pressure on the core activities.
The cooperation between the board and the management had not been so smooth for some time. From mid-March onwards, there were the Corona measures, including compulsory homeworking in a modified family context. It soon became clear that things were going completely wrong. There was demotivation, a number of employees left and before Summer we had a decapitated organisation. The board of directors is responsible for ensuring continuity within the organisation. As chairman of the board, I tried to identify where things went wrong and what we would need to reverse the trend. For a while, I dealt with urgent daily affairs, while waiting for the arrival of the new CEO, which of course is not a healthy cumulus.
Which competences and skills do you think are crucial to be a good director?
In May 2019, the Board of Directors of Artsen zonder Vakantie still had 5 members. Two members have since resigned and had to be replaced.
Traditionally, when replacing a board member, we look for a new person with a similar profile. And we limited the search to our own pool: members of the general assembly, volunteers, the network of employees and directors. However, I wanted to take a more professional approach. We started a self-assessment of the functioning of the board of directors. We used a tool developed by Verso, in collaboration with the King Baudouin Foundation. The results of this assessment confirmed our ideas about the sub-optimal composition and functioning of the Board of Directors.
We then developed a competence matrix, inspired by the model developed by GUBERNA. We defined the competencies required for our Board of Directors and attributed to each topic a weighting factor. For example, knowledge of public health and international cooperation was given a higher weighting than human resources competencies. We asked each director to fill in the matrix and thus obtained a picture of the competencies that are present but also missing or poorly represented. On this basis, we composed a specific profile which has also been published externally. Candidate directors were also asked to fill in the matrix and we were thus able to attract two new highly competent directors.
It is also important for an NGO to be able to attract good management profiles. Basic knowledge of good governance, finance and strategy should be basic requirements. In addition, it is advisable to look for specific skills that are mainly complementary. A financial expert, directors who are familiar with the core business, directors with general management experience or with a legal background, ...
In addition to the skills, the personality of the directors is crucial and, above all, the adequacy with the other members. Showing a sufficiently critical and constructive mind, self-reflection, putting the interests of the organisation before personal interests are just some of the aspects that characterise a good director.
In the NGO sector, mandates are usually unpaid. Above-average motivation is included, but it should not be at the expense of basic managerial skills.
What is, in your opinion, your specific added value for a board of directors?
When I took over as chairman, I intended to professionalise the functioning of the management bodies and to make the relationship between the board of directors and the management and between the board of directors and the General Assembly more explicit, of course in consultation with all the directors. We have already significant steps forward within the board of directors itself. The relationship with the General Assembly is traditionally difficult and will be addressed in the coming period, among other things by organising a day of reflection in addition to the mandatory Annual General Assembly, during which a number of ideas for the future can be exchanged with the members.
And with the new CEO, the collaboration with the management will be given a new interpretation. After all, in the past there has been too much interference from the board in operational aspects ("the nose and fingers were in it") and in a previous period there was too much concentration of power on the part of the CEO. Both are detrimental to the good management of an organisation.
Which themes deserve the board's full attention?
The board must be able to fulfil its 3 roles: defining strategy, supervising and supporting leadership.
We introduced an annual calendar in our board of directors, in which a number of agenda items are fixed in advance. In our sector, for example, it is not necessary to follow the financial situation in detail at every meeting (we have 6 meetings a year), as it is fairly stable, but we want to monitor it periodically.
We are also going to develop a scorecard with a number of operational Key Performance Indicators, so that the board can monitor the operation without being too close to it.
We are recognised as an NGO for a period of 10 years. 40% of our operations are funded by government grants, based on a 5-year long-term plan. Our most important strategic choices are therefore more or less determined within this timeframe.
However, it is important not to rest on our laurels but to pay constant attention to innovation. In our sector, this means looking for new forms of cooperation in the field of knowledge exchange, new partners in the field and in Belgium. The recent pandemic has shown the importance of having alternative solutions. Innovation also means that we need to be sufficiently innovative and creative in fundraising (60% of our operation resources are drawn from our own funds). After all, all NGOs fish from the same donor pool.
Another important theme in the board is, in my opinion, a high-level human resources policy. It is not a question of which employee holds which position, but of paying sufficient attention to the impact that the human resources policy (or lack of it) can have on the culture of a (small) organisation.
What is your advice for (future) board members?
Don't be afraid to evaluate yourself, both as an individual director ("am I sufficiently participative, do I devote enough time to good preparation, do I play my role properly") and as a board ("is our board of directors sufficiently complementary, is there no dominance of certain individuals or sections, do we create a climate that allows open discussion and decision-making by consensus").
A good director has the basic skills the organisation needs, thinks ahead and has a sufficiently positive attitude towards management.
How did the GUBERNA educational programmes contribute to your success as a director?
The Director Effectiveness programme provided a very qualitative refresher of the basic concepts in a short period of time. The Board Effectiveness programme offered me many new ideas, thanks to its solid theoretical framework, but above all thanks to the many practical testimonials and the interaction with the other participants. It was time well spent!
How does the GUBERNA Alumni Network support you in your role of director?
I have not yet had the opportunity to participate in the Alumni network activities. But I look forward to the upcoming events, once we can shake hands again without being masked.
Over de interviewer
Jo Hendrikx is an independent director in SMEs and family businesses, member of the GUBERNA Alumni Council and owner of Straight Business Partners, active in strategy and organisational development.
Tel +32 478 603 825