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Interview with Lynne Wannan

Microphone purple 311There were many thoughtful and informative interviews which could not be included in the latest edition of The Book of the Board (published by The Federation Press).  But interviewees have been happy to approve their separate publication.  Lynne Wannan reflects on her experience gained as a board member and Chair of community and government organisations.  

Interview with Lynne Wannan by David Fishel

Lynne Wannan
Lynne Wannan is Director, Office for the Community Sector, Department of Human Services Victoria. Lynne is an inductee of the Victorian Women's Honour Roll and a Member of the Order of Australia. She is a Director of GoodStart Early Learning Limited and Western Chances. Her past roles include Chair Victorian Government's Adult Community and Further Education Board and Children's Advisory Council, Commissioner Victorian Learning and Skills Commission, member Victorian Qualification Authority, Chair Community Child Care Victoria and Convenor National Association, Community Based Children's Services. Earlier roles include Deputy Chancellor Victoria University, Chair Premier's Women's Advisory Council, member Child Care Reference Group, Commonwealth Government and Manager Community Services, City of Sunshine.

What is your board background?

I have been on boards almost my entire working life. I was in local government as a senior manager of Community Services portfolios, and while in those roles I was on all sorts of community committees. I also became involved in advocacy around children's services, so I Chaired national and state advocacy organisations. Later, I was a Chair of the Victorian Government's Children's Advisory Council and the Adult, Community and Further Education Board as well as a Commissioner on the Victorian Skills Commission.

About five years ago I was asked to come back into State Government and head up a new office for the community sector. I am currently the Executive Director for the Office for the Community Sector. There have also been a couple of non-government boards that I have remained involved in. I am a Director of GoodStart, the entity that took over from the ABC child care centres, and I'm the Deputy Chair of an organisation in the Melbourne western suburbs that a friend of mine and I set up to provide scholarships for young people.

Part-way through my career I had a consulting firm, with a couple of other women, and during that time I also started a retail business which I ran for 10 years. That led to me being Chair of the national industry body for independent toy specialists of Australia.

How do you see the leadership role of the board?

Most important is having a vision about what the entity is and where it’s going. On statutory boards it’s interesting because you do need to have a vision, but you also work to a government vision and the Chair has a responsibility to deliver on what the government expects. As Chair you are the one who has to make sure that the board comes along and works to that government agenda as well. 

The members of a government board are brought together because of their skills and expertise. Generally they are appointed by the government and there is an expectation that they will give good advice. They are often there also because they are regarded as having a relationship with parts of a sector, not necessarily representing a sector, but certainly being seen as able to represent that view. 

When you’re on a non-profit board you are basically accountable to the members. You are there to bring a skill or knowledge and you have an obligation to contribute that and to be an active participant. So it’s different - it is more about the board understanding the task of their particular committee and working out how to deliver on that. Often you also have obligations to your donors and whoever is funding you. You have to exercise proper diligence and understand the finances and keep on track, and not let the organisation go adrift. 

How do you learn to be a good board member and Chair?

When you come on to a board it does take you a bit of time to find your feet and understand how the board works. It is pretty important that you take some time to talk to the Chair, to other board members, to the CEO - really do a lot of background reading and get on top of what the issues are - and get a good sense of what you're coming into. That early preparation time is important. Boards don't necessarily meet all that frequently and you might only have three or four meetings a year. That's a big gap during a learning phase, so taking time to catch up with other board members outside of meetings is prudent. With GoodStart we have dinner together and it does really help, because we are a national board. We can catch up when people are in other board members' states. I think working at becoming a team is important.

As for Chairing, experience counts for a lot. You wouldn't want to just come onto something as Chair if you hadn't had any experience on boards. I don't think everybody can be a Chair. You have to have a whole lot of skills around listening, taking things on board, being a bit of an arbiter, taking the lead, and bringing others with you. Some of those things can be learned; some of them depend on particular personalities. A lot of people don't want to take that lead, up-front role, but practice is really important, as well as understanding and knowledge.

How do you decide what to focus on?

You have to make a call about what matters and what doesn't. And you need to make sure that you have got competent people within the organisation (board or staff), that you get good, understandable reports and that the board discusses them. A good board will try and plan out an agenda and be timely about when things do matter across the year. On the agenda for the meeting I would always put the things that really require consideration up front. Sometimes things come out that are very important that are unexpected, like a change in government policy or a directive from a Minister. You need to be able to respond to those things.

As a Chair you also need to work really closely with your executive or your staff, take their advice and really get a sense of where they are tracking on those things that are important.

How do you see the relationship between Chair and CEO?

I always have a lot of engagement and respond immediately to anything. If a CEO contacts me and asks for something it is really important that I get back and provide that support promptly. I think a Chair needs to support the CEO in the way the CEO needs. I’d always have a meeting with the CEO before the board meeting - to run through the agenda and make sure they are on top of everything. 

The relationship also depends on the phase of the organisation. At a small organisation I'm involved in; when we started it up we spent a lot of time with staff and were essentially like three CEOs. It was not the position we wanted to be in - but we didn't have the capacity for staff. Now we have a team of about ten people that we employ and it is a completely different relationship.

The CEO is the one who runs the business and once you're in that position you need to take the advice of the CEO. The day to day stuff is for the CEO but the Chair needs to hold on to the idea of where the organisation is going to go. The Chair really is the holder of the mission in a way and it is the Chair who can say to the CEO, "Well I think you're off track."

Regarding CEO appraisal I think formality is important because it allows you to have a structure and you can be clearer in your conversation. But if you're a small organisation you don't want to go over the top in formality. For GoodStart, which is a large organisation, we have a very formal process for the appraisal of our CEO which involves discussion with other executive members and external contacts as well as with the CEO. It is quite formal and structured and we have performance criteria. You need performance criteria for whatever organisation you are in because it enables you to be somewhat objective. But then the conversation should be a comfortable one about progress and issues and giving the CEO the opportunity to reflect and talk about her view of progress and what might be the challenges. You add your own assessment of how the CEO has gone and at the end of that comes the conversation where you can say, "OK, let's now look at areas where you do need improvement and what we can do."

What is the board's role in fundraising?

I think the board has to be involved in fundraising. It depends on the type of organisation, but even the small one I'm involved in depends on fundraising. That doesn't mean everybody brings the same thing to the table. We have a board that we have developed with people with particular skills - we have marketing and communication people, corporate people and fundraising people. There is an expectation that we all contribute what we can from our skills base. Fundraising is core business for us and we have events and we're all expected to get people to come and do what we can to engage in whatever way we can to bring the money in. I think when you're totally dependent on that, then you have to; it is part of your job.

Should board members be paid?

I think yes, if it is possible. If you're very small you would make a judgement about whether you have the money to do that. When I Chaired some of the advocacy organisations I did get a small remuneration and I did have to travel a lot and I think you absolutely have to have costs covered in those situations. It depends on the workload and the nature of the organisation. You also have people now who just have a portfolio of boards and expect to get their income through that. I would not want financial reasons being the driver or the barrier for people coming on to non-profit boards, so it is that balance of recognising that you might lose people if you can't do something to enable them to participate.

Does the sector need more regulation? Do we need the ACNC?

There have really been very few problems and so you need to ask: what is the problem a regulator would be trying to address? We don't have many organisations getting into trouble and going under and, if they do get into that position, usually they are in receipt of government funding and the government entity knows them pretty well and can do something about it. The ACNC itself couldn't really address any of that because they don't have any capability to know how an organisation is operating. They have probably reduced some of the administrative burden by getting things more consolidated in one place and, if they had a really good website like the UK Charities Commission, then it would be useful for people to go and access data. But the ACNC doesn't have much information on the website and they don't collect much information.

In Victoria what we did is set up a portal called "The not for profit compliance portal". Anyone can go in and find out what they need to know about compliance with any Victorian department or the federal or local government, and that is really useful. We have been talking with the ACNC about them using it. If you were a small organisation and you wanted to do fundraising you can ask what you need to do to comply - it will take you right to the piece of legislation that tells you. But ultimately I'm not convinced that there was a major problem for the ACNC to address.

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About the Author
David Fishel 2014 - compressedDavid Fishel is a Director of Positive Solutions, a consulting firm specialising in the cultural and non-profit sectors. He has been a board or Council member of several cultural and educational organisations, including Circa, Creative Enterprise Australia, QUT, and the Brisbane Writers Festival. He has been involved in the development of national training programs for board members in the UK and Australia. He is the founding Director of BoardConnect, a non-profit organisation established to provide advice and support for the board members and CEOs of non-profit organisations throughout Australia. David has facilitated strategic planning and organisational development for cultural, health, Aboriginal, sports, educational and other organisations.