Finding candidates with skills that will assist in fundraising is one of the unique issues not-for-profits face when refreshing their boards.

Finding candidates with skills that will assist in fundraising is one of the unique issues not-for-profits face when refreshing their boards. Andrew Sadauskas reports on how Ovarian Cancer Australia managed the challenge.

Ovarian Cancer Australia board members Ian Jacobs, Meghan Speers, Marco D’Avino, Paula Benson, Carolyn Reynolds, Suzy Nicoletti and Tracey Curro.

One of the major challenges all organisations face as they grow is making sure that adequate corporate structures are in place to provide proper leadership and oversight.

For most organisations – whether they’re a corporation, a government agency, a not-for-profit or an academic institution – this includes putting together a board of directors that can provide proper governance and oversight.

In addition to financial, legal and governance experience, not-for-profits have a number of unique challenges in selecting directors, including finding people with fundraising skills or strong networks that can be used to forge corporate partnerships.

For not-for-profits, appointing the wrong balance of people to the board can have catastrophic consequences. For example, inexperienced directors might choose to cut fundraising costs without fully appreciating the impact this will have on future revenue.

With its revenue base and remit growing and a new strategic plan in place, Ovarian Cancer Australia decided the time was right to expand and refresh its board.

Here’s how the organisation and its chair, Paula Benson, managed the challenge.

A period of rapid growth

Originally known as ‘OvCa Australia: the National Ovarian Cancer Network’, Ovarian Cancer Australia was founded in July 2001 as a small grassroots organisation providing support to women, and their families and friends, who are affected by ovarian cancer.

In response to a general lack of awareness in the community around ovarian cancer, the organisation added a focus on awareness raising, including its signs, symptoms, risk factors and what patients should expect in terms of best practice medical care.

After Benson joined the board in 2007 and took over as chair in 2010, the organisation experienced a period of significant growth.

“Over that time, we significantly increased our remit growing from a very small $450,000 a year in revenue to now close to $3 million,” Benson says.

“We’ve completely professionalised our support services, we’ve implemented a very strategic brand marketing campaign around awareness, we’ve taken strong advocacy roles based on feedback from women, and their family and friends, telling us what they want and need.

“Some years ago, we also moved into research. [It was] because we didn’t think there was a strategic approach to research in Australia, so we led the sector in developing a National Action Plan for Ovarian Cancer Research.

“[Ovarian cancer] is the most lethal of all women’s cancers. It has a very poor prognosis. It’s often diagnosed at late stage, and its survival rates are unfortunately around 43% after five years, compared to 90%+ for breast or prostate cancer.”

A strategic decision to overhaul the board

A small board of directors had been appropriate for Ovarian Cancer Australia when it began as a community-based grassroots support group.

However, after more than a decade-and-a-half of growth, it became clear that the current arrangements would be a hurdle to the organisation meeting its future objectives.

“As we refreshed our [four-year] strategic plan in 2016, we set our strategic vision that no woman with ovarian cancer walked alone, and we were very clear about what our priorities were,” Benson says.

“We also received government funding from government for a range initiatives out of the National Action Plan for Ovarian Cancer Research.

“We were growing and we knew that this disease was a really tough one. Along with having a really solid strategic foundation plan, we had an ambitious goal of reducing the incidence of ovarian cancer and improve the survival rate by 25% by 2025.

“In order to do that, we needed an expanded board, with a really high calibre of people to help us to drive the change we wanted to see. As a board, we sat down around 12 months ago and talked about the need to expand the board.

“There was also a number of people, including myself, who had been on the board for a number of years. It was a need to refresh the board to make sure people didn’t stay on too long, and to bring fresh eyes and energy, as well as skills, to drive our work forward.”

The right mix of skills

Having made the decision to overhaul its board, the next major consideration was around the skills and experience to look for in potential directors.

“A not-for-profit has the same critical role of governance as any other organisation, but there’s also an element of rolling up your sleeves and providing practical support to the organisation based on your skillset and networks,” Benson says.

“We sat down and identified some key skills that we wanted, but we also wanted people who were extremely well networked.”

The organisation ended up seeking a balance between traditional board governance (such as finance and law), managing key stakeholder groups (including patients and the research community) and skills that would assist in areas like fundraising (marketing, media and digital).

A preference was also given to candidates who had a personal or family connection to ovarian cancer.

“Obviously, we wanted to make sure we were covered in terms of financial and legal skills. We refreshed our brand last year, and we needed to attract people who were going to evolve our organisation to be bold, brave and brilliant,” Benson says.

“We identified that we needed digital skills, marketing and media skills, real customer or client focus, we really want to run our business well, and we also wanted someone to reflect the research community as well.”

Finding the right candidates

To find the best candidates for its criteria, Ovarian Cancer Australia ended up using the services of a specialist board recruitment firm.

“I am absolutely thrilled at the calibre of people we attracted. We used a board recruitment service, Boards Global, who were absolutely terrific to work with. What was exciting about working with them is that they’re a small agency, but they were prepared to be brave,” Benson says.

“When I said I wanted to attract this calibre of person, they didn’t say ‘you’re punching above your weight there’, they were prepared to pick up the phone with anyone I identified.”

Out of the process the not-for-profit ended up selecting five distinguished leaders from business and academia to its board.

They are: Bain & Co partner Marco D’Avino;  non-executive director Marina Go, UNSW Sydney vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs, Twitter Australia managing director Suzy Nicoletti: and Deloitte partner Meghan Speers.

The new directors join Ovarian Cancer Australia’s existing board of directors including chair and non-executive director Paula Benson, SHK senior partner Tracey Curro, Better Caring COO Jo-Ann Hicks and Vicinity Centres general counsel Carolyn Reynolds.

The new board includes directors with substantial fundraising experience. For example, Jacobs has a strong track record in fundraising for cancer research in the UK, having founded gynaecological oncology research charity The Eve Appeal in 1985.

“We had a little bit of changeover. We went from six to four for a short period, only three or four months, and now we’ve gone up to nine, with a view that we will drop down to seven when the new board members have settled in,” says Benson.

Key lessons

Benson’s advice to other not-for-profits looking to overhaul their board of directors is to start by working out a strategic focus and to be clear about how success is going to be measured.

“Be clear about your brand and what you mean to your stakeholders. From that, you’ll be clear about the skills matrix for your board and the kind of people you will need to attract.

“Along with skills and experience, we needed people who could speak up and speak out, because we’re on such a journey with people who need our help with this particular cancer. We need people who will be bold, brave and brilliant with us.”

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