CONSIDERING VOLUNTEERING FOR A LOCAL COMMITTEE, BUT WORRIED YOU LACK THE SKILLS?

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By Peter Dewar

Our inner west has a proud history of community work. Amenities we take for granted: major hospital, riverside park, clean air and truck-free streets, just for starters — are to a large extent the work of volunteer groups.

Dedicated community members are needed to steer our grassroots not-for-profit organisations. However, even the most well-meaning local can baulk at signing up for committee work, anxious at the thought of agendas, financial reports and governance.

Williamstown Education and Community Centre (WCEC) is a 2019 Hobsons Bay Business Excellence Award winner. Quite an accomplishment for an organisation overseen by seven volunteers.

The centre started back in the 70s as the dream of a handful of mums from North Williamstown Primary School for a local learning hub. The late Joan Kirner supported their initiative, later securing a location in historic Thompson Street. Today, WCEC is a bustling training and childcare centre that hosts a diverse range of community activities.

Thought it might be a good place to ask about joining a local committee of management and talk with manager Dr Mark Brophy:

Okay, let’s start at the beginning … what exactly is WCEC?

We are an incorporated association with two community centres: Joan Kirner House in Williamstown and Spotswood Community House. We do everything from childcare to government-funded English and computer classes, run recycling initiatives as well as offering rooms for exercise, hobby and interest groups. For some it’s just a place to drop in and read a newspaper, use the computer, or on Wednesday, join the walking group or get a freshly-made cappuccino at our pop-up coffee van.

How does that new, bright-eyed committee of management member make a start?

A wide range of skills is needed on a committee. There are members who come with financial, legal, marketing, HR and compliance expertise. But there is also a need for individuals with knowledge and experience similar to the organisation’s main business. Or, at least, have the passion to help in that field.

I think the first thing that a new member needs to understand is committee meeting protocols. The chairperson will usually take control of each meeting, keeping the discussion on track with an agenda.

Organisations usually have a vision and mission statement, which describe their purpose and goals. They might be thought of as the committee’s job description, and is required reading for new members.

The main task is to support the manager and also ensure they are doing their job! As well as delivering services, a good manager will keep abreast of regulations, manage staff, finances, maintenance and building programs and ensure policies are up to date.

If the organisation has good systems in place and everything is running smoothly, then there’s often not much work for the committee. Just oversight and checking. It’s typically when there is a ‘crisis’ that the committee need to step up and be a bit more hands on.

I also think being a positive ambassador for the organisation is something for committee members to keep in mind.

How does a newbie make sense of an organisation’s finances?

Ideally, all committee members will understand the finances. But that can take time. You don’t need to be an accountant or bookkeeper, but you should be prepared to learn how to read financial statements.

Keep in mind that a balance sheet merely shows what is owned and what is owed. Profit/loss or cash flow reports record where the money is coming from, and where it is going. Surpluses are an investment, ensuring ongoing viability and a bright future.

It takes times to understand the reports, so no question is silly. Remember, there’s probably someone else on the committee wanting to ask the same question.

Dos and Don’ts for a management committee member?

I think the key is understanding that committee work is ‘oversight’ and the manager’s job is ‘operations’. In fact, the committee has only one person to supervise, the manager, whose job is to take the committee’s strategy and make it a reality.

From my experience a big ‘Don’t’ is to interfere in the operations. This is the manager’s job, and expertise. They are there every day.

I think one of the ‘Dos’ is to know other committee members, what their strengths are, and work as a team focused on the organisation’s vision and mission.

Few community groups have the luxury of a manager with a PHD and administration team like WCEC. Mind you, that’s not where they started. And sound management principles including meeting protocols, formulating a mission statement, setting goals, tracking finances and keeping abreast of government regulations don’t sound like rocket science.

Certainly not beyond those enterprising neighbours amongst us, who band together to make the community the best it can be.

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