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Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Better Boards Conference, and co-present with the talented Ruth Pitt on the YWCA of Canberra’s long-term strategic plan. This week the Better Boards team sent me the video of our presentation, so here it is – enjoy!

You can read my original post covering the conference here

Note: I’ve since resigned from the YWCA of Canberra board to take up an exciting role within the staff team, and I love it!

Progress-program

I was recently asking my NGO communications buddies if they knew of any courses that focused on digital campaigning and community mobilisation. The responses I received were largely along the lines of “I don’t think anything like that exists in Australia”, and “hey you should run a course on that”, so I was starting to get a little disheartened.

That was, until Sarah Stokely suggested I grab a ticket to Progress 2013 – and man I’m glad that I did!

In this post I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights of the last two days, and will no doubt add to it as my brain digests the smorgasbord of ideas, critiques, and strategic thinking I was lucky enough to learn about at this landmark event.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson, social determinants of health guru and expert on the societal effects of inequality framed our thinking as the morning keynote speaker on day one.

His opening slide encouraged us to consider the question, why are we so miserable?

He explained that at a global level (comparing country-to-country), life expectancy is unrelated to economic growth, happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, when we look at the population within countries, health and social problems are more prominent in countries where there is an inequitable distribution of wealth. That is, the larger the income gap, the worse off countries are across a range of areas including: homicide, mental illness, imprisonment, life expectancy, high school drop-outs, maths and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births, social capital, and the prevalence of trust between citizens.

Research shows that people who live in unequal countries actually trust each other less. Only 15-20% of people living in unequal countries feel they can trust each other, compared to more equal countries, where it’s about 60%.

Richard explained that a naive view of inequality only looks at one end of the spectrum that focuses on poverty and income differences. Whereas a more informed view examines the layers of all the subtlety destructive tendencies that humans possess, ie the psycho-social effects.

Fundamentally it’s about a response to social hierarchy and ranking, and whether people feel valued or devalued.

Richard Wilkinson-Public health slide
Research tells us that friendship is a protective factor of health

We then had a look at the “U shape of inequality” from the 1930’s to the present day. It bottomed out in the 70s (thank you feminism) and is now sadly on the rise again. Richard says we’ve lost any vision of what a society that serves us all might look like – a thought for us to keep in mind throughout the conference.

So what might this more equal world look like, and how do we get there?

Richard challenged us to consider what would happen if we extend the idea of democracy into the economic world, and transform big business and corporate control into democratic spaces.

His talk convinced me that in many respects, some of us have reached the end of the benefits of economic growth, and that now we need to think about how to create a better quality of life for everyone, beyond consumerism.

Tim Costello on the narrative of progress

Tim says that the notion of progress needs to be unpicked. He says it can’t be a narrative about material goods, and that we need to understand its limits. The economic rationalism storyline should have already been unpicked, but it still dominates our public debate and policy making.

Australia ranks number one in the world in terms of medium per capita wealth, and number two for wellbeing. We are healthy and wealthy, but are we wise?

The story of “the wealthier I am, the happier I’ll be” doesn’t necessarily work out the way we think it will when we’re ultimately faced with greed, stress,  and fragmentation of communities.

Working out the narrative of progress was one of the challenges Tim put to the conference attendees. This was particularly important given that the NGO sector is largely written out of the progress story.

His take-home points for us:

  • If we can understand our size and our muscle, we can change this place
  • We need to empower people to define what “the good life” means for them
  • There are a lot of people in Australia who should be having a voice, and they need to be connected

Limited news: a future for media in Australia?

Future-of-media

Panelists:

Tim started out talking about how he often sees journos dealing with Twitter followers like they are some kind of pest. He said journos don’t like being publicly held to account, they don’t like being questioned, and they still resist engaging in meaningful dialogic communication.

This got me thinking about how we can break down the barriers to social media use, how we can bridge the digital divide, and how we can empower citizen journalists to deliver quality, yet independent content. I’m yet to come across a better example than the PakVotes project that I came across in Geneva earlier this year.

We then moved on to discussing the Murdoch press, and how we break down the empire and it’s constraints. The general consensus was that monetising free-to-access media is still very difficult, and the publications that have opted for the paywall option are finding it problematic.

Jamila thinks that by 2020 we’ll have online media accounts where we pay very little (eg half a cent) per article read, but that it will take a while for us to get to the point where culturally we’re ready for that to happen on a large-scale.

She flagged that sponsored content is one of the more promising ways that we can monetise online media. I saw a couple of examples of this when Mamamia ran its “Most Clickable Women” awards, and invited female bloggers to engage in the creation of branded or sponsored content.

Digital Campaigning: going well beyond clicktavism

Panelists:

This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending, and it delivered! It was a real honour to hear some of the world’s leading campaigners share their approaches to strategy, implementation and evaluation.

Some tips from the gurus:

  • Technology is just an enabler, it’s how we use it that’s important
  • Seize the moment – when something happens in the real world, leverage it!
  • When people see real action in the world it galvanises support in the online environment
  • By challenging politicians to do something about an issue (by collecting signatures for an online petition, for example), you present not only a big stick, but also a very big carrot
  • It’s important to agitate around issues that “no one cares about”, but recognise this will often require a much more long-term strategy
  • Many people fail because their target audience can’t see how it will lead them to success, and they can’t see their role in the journey
  • When people take action you need to celebrate little victories along the way

Moving beyond the “gender card” – opportunities for the Australian women’s movement.

Y women

Josie Swords of Feminaust, Krista Seddon of the YWCA Victoria, Michelle Deshong of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, myself representing the YWCA of Canberra, and Nina O’Brien of Kindling.

Panelists:

Jane began the discussion by saying that she doesn’t see feminism as a movement. She sees feminism as a way of seeing the world, where women are at the centre of their own lives, rather that at the periphery of someone else’s. Jane noted that one of the things that we (women) consistently deal with is a trivialisation of our thoughts, feelings and desires, and that this needs to change.

Rebecca however, was more interested in talking about how we as a collective can move our agenda forward faster. She said the average GetUp member is a 55 year-old woman, and that one of the reasons women make excellent campaigners is that we’re comfortable with emotion, and the vulnerability that leads to connection.

Michelle challenged the position that Jane presented, because she feels like she has only just had the opportunity to start participating in feminism. She sees her race as the first thing that has prevented her participation, and then her gender, which is why she calls herself an Indigenous Feminist.

Michelle believes that gender equity is a conversation for everyone, and that Indigenous women want to participate in feminism while bringing their men along with them.

There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal women who are participating in the “feminist debate”, because they are more comfortable participating in the “Indigenous conversation”. The overlay of cultural context for Aboriginal peoples is very important, and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to participation in feminist debates.

Jane sees social media as one of the biggest ways that we can move feminism forward faster. The fact that we can have a public conversation without being mediated is unprecedented, and is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

Using the Destroy The Joint campaign as a case study, Jane passed on a few words of wisdom about progressing the feminist agenda:

  • Mock stupidity – it’s the best defence!
  • You have to fight mockery and insults with the same thing!
  • We need to make all progressive movements FUN!
  • Start with a group of people who are like-minded, and want the same outcome. You will have a much better chance of making your campaigns fun and engaging.

Finally, Michelle encouraged us to think about what the world will look like when gender equity exists, and stressed the fact that for us to get there, women’s rights first need to be accepted as human rights.

Best-night

Throughout the month of October, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) is the Official On-Screen Charity Partner for the One Direction ‘Take Me Home’ Australian Tour. FARE will be screening video messages at concerts, as well as talking to parents and young people at the concerts about alcohol-free fun. I wrote this post for FARE’s blog, Drink Tank, to share what I would consider to be the best night of my life as a teenager – no alcohol was involved!

Explosive, unbridled, teenage hormone-fuelled excitement doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt the day my parents agreed to let me go to my first live music concert.

I cried tears of joy when mum told me that I’d finally get to see Green Day. And not on an old, over-played VHS tape, oh no. They would be right there in front of me – we would be breathing the same air.

If I got close enough to the stage, maybe I could catch their eye? Maybe, just maybe Billy-Joe’s sweat would flick onto my face as he danced around the stage. It was a long awaited dream come true.

But before you read on I need to be up front with you. 14 year-old me wasn’t exactly a One Direction fan-girl type, or Directioner as they’re affectionately known. In fact, I’m pretty sure 14 year-old me would’ve hated Directioners, but that’s beside the point.

You see, I was more of a Grunger, or at least I wanted to be.

I grew up on the Upper North Shore of Sydney in a nice house with my big brother James and my loving, hard-working parents. James and I both went to good schools, played sport, enjoyed art, and loved writing music (or noise as dad used to call it).

Every time school holidays rolled around, I couldn’t wait to dye my hair some kind of crazy colour, buy a new pair of Dr Martins Boots, or get another ear piercing.

I was a creative spirit, and I was trying to break free. Free from my very comfortable, middle-class existence.

But with a good 17 years between me and my first live music concert experience, I can say without hesitation that Directioners and 14 year-old me probably have a lot in common.

Picture this. It’s summertime, 8 February 1996. Paul Keating was enjoying his last moments as Prime Minister, and Friends had just aired on Australian TV for the first time.

I legged it out of the school grounds with my two best friends straight after 5th period. We hurriedly crammed into a toilet cubicle at Pymble Train Station to change out of our private girl’s school uniforms and into our real identities – freedom!

There I was, rainbow knee-high stockings, skate shoes with matching rainbow laces, a tatty black skirt of mum’s that I’d cut short with a pair of scissors, and a commemorative Kurt Cobain t-shirt.

On the train trip to Central Station we scoffed down sweets, recited line after line of the band’s song lyrics, strategised about how to make it past the security guards to get back stage, and made bets on what the set list would be.

After what felt like a lifetime, we finally arrived. Five hours early for the concert – we were real fans.

Buzzing on sugar, we plonked ourselves down on the footpath with half a dozen other kids. They had “missioned it” from Newcastle that morning – respect.

We marvelled at the gate of the Hordern Pavillion, the infamous rock temple of awesome that my big brother had always gloated about seeing bands play at. Finally it was my turn, and I wasn’t just there to see any band. They were the coolest, most amazing punk rock trio in the world.

I wonder if this is how Directioners will feel when they arrive at the Homebush Bay Stadium on Saturday night?

Sure their hair will be meticulously GHD-styled rather than intentionally mashed into a bird’s nest, sure their makeup will be all glitter and glam, rather than the Courtney Love-inspired racoon eyes look, and of course their short shorts and skinny jeans are a far cry from the stone washed, torn up thrift shop threads we used to wear.

But ultimately, we all just want “one thing”, and that’s to see our heroes up there on stage, blowing our minds.

As night fell over the Hordern, thousands of kids joined the back of the queue outside. It was time.

The loud speaker crackled, and then a voice announced, “before the gates open we would like to remind you that there’s no running allowed inside the venue. I repeat, do not run when we open the gates.”

Well, I think it’s the first and last time I’ll ever witness 7000 teenagers power-walking into a venue. But we managed to get the perfect spot, right at the front and centre of the mosh pit.

For the next three hours we lived the dream. Sweaty, screaming sardines packed into that room so tight that we could hardly breathe.

The band busted out hit after hit, their lyrics and melodies penetrating our souls. They understood our deepest fears, our aspirations, our lives, it was magical.

While in that moment I certainly believed I was the biggest Green Day fan on the face of the planet, I hadn’t realised the extent of my own excitement until I was approached by a towering, shaggy-haired concert goer.

He grabbed my shoulder, leaned down, looked me straight in the eyes and yelled above the music “dude, can I get some of whatever you’re on?”

I paused, puzzled for a moment, and then responded with “nothing man, it’s just the band”! I raised the horns and moshed on.

Finally the end of the set rolled around, and the crowd demanded encore after encore. And then, the drummer, Tre Cool, walked out from behind his kit to the front of the stage, a pair of Zildjian drum sticks clasped in one hand.

He gestured to the crowd with a “who wants these” signal, and of course everyone went nuts. He paced to the right of the stage and pegged the first drum stick into the crowd. Then he strode back to the left of the stage and stopped, right in front of me.

The mosh pit surged, people were pushing and shoving each other out of the way to try and line up with him. I kept my focus.

And then, it happened. His arm propelled the second drum stick towards us. In slow motion I saw it, rotating as it flew gracefully through the air. Someone next to me jumped, but they were too eager, a premature attempt. I waited, I had it in my sights.

Then, like a seasoned AFL player, I grabbed hold of the guy in front of me and leapt into the air, pushing off his shoulders to get an extra bit of height.

I reached out my hand and snapped the drum stick out of the air!

I bolted for the exit, running from the group of crazed fans that wanted to steal it from me. As I passed through the entrance to the Hordern I spotted the Wendy’s ice-cream van, and slid underneath it to seek refuge while I waited for the mob to pass.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised the significance of that moment. What I had that night was something that people search for; that raw, untamed excitement and the ability to express it without a care in the world. Or more importantly, without a drug in the world.

I hope that this month One Direction fans feel what I felt that night. I hope they can’t contain themselves. I hope they are completely overwhelmed by the experience. I hope they remember every glorious detail. I hope they don’t grow up too quickly. And most of all, I hope they always remember that they don’t need a drink in their hand to have the best night of their lives.

This post was originally published on Drink Tank.

Me-Ruth

Ruth and I, Better Boards Conference, Melbourne, July 2013

Having been back in the country for less than a week, it was a bit hectic to then head off down to Melbourne for the Better Boards Conference, but I’m so glad I did!

The opening keynote on Saturday was from ThinkPlace’s Dr Nina Terrey on how design thinking can drive innovation. She talked about some of the challenges of our NGO environment, from technology and the demand for businesses to operate online, to our ageing population and the impact of this on our economy, housing, and family structures.

She suggested that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how we (NGOs) connect within one another, and challenged us to consider how we can be cooperative as well as competing.

She then talked about how many young professionals are “mission-driven”, and there’s a trend toward social entrepreneurship in Australia. I certainly notice this in my friendship groups.

Dr Terrey did say though that there are no formulas or models that will simply help us deal with these uncertain times, but that design thinking can help us navigate the “mystery” of our environment.

Innovation-mindset

Leadbeater’s appetite for collaborative innovation

So where to start with design thinking?

Dr Terrey encouraged delegates to think about where some of the biggest challeges are for our organisations, and said to start with looking at the available evidence to help us understand “where we are” at this point in time.

She then said to think about what success looks like. Then how we might get there. Talk to stakeholders to understand what it’s like from their perspective. Do some interviews, spend time with those people, get some information. Then hypothesise…

Design-thinking

Dr Terrey’s “leading on the edge of innovation” preso

One of the other sessions I attended on Saturday was with Philip Mayers, Director, Dakin Mayers Associates, on the role of the nominations committee in recruiting the right board directors.

He started out by saying that one of the fundamental issues in recruiting board directors is that many are recruited through the “old boy/old girl” network. There’s also the “big names” syndrome, and he reckons these people only want to put in minimal effort on a board, and more often than not they’re doing it for the professional development or networking opportunities, rather than having a deep connection with the issues the NGO is dealing with.

He said that some of the biggest challenges for a nominations committee includes:

  • there are no magic bullets with recruitment
  • big names will not help your board strategically guide an organisation
  • recruitment can be a very slow process and it needs to be tackled strategically and thoughtfully

He suggested that the makeup of the nominations committee comprise: 2 senior board members, 2 externals, and the CEO. He stressed the importance of the externals in keeping the internals honest (if they’re the right people).

In terms of what to look for in board members, Philip cited the following qualities: big picture thinker, open-minded, non-biased, approachable, change agent, inclusive, think on their feet, team player, positive manner, ability to delegate, personal integrity, and has skills in board governance.

He talked about the danger of appointing young people to the board (eeek). The reason being that “board members need to have an understanding of governance.”

This comment puzzled me. Don’t young people have the capacity to understand what governance is all about? I sit on a board where there is a minimum requirement that 30% of all board positions are to be held by young women, and I can tell you, they discuss governance A LOT.

In fact, most of the young women on the YWCA of Canberra board pride themselves on their governance nerdiness. More about the Y’s awesome finance and governance workshops here and a good overview of Gen Y in the board room from Chris O’Neill here.

After hearing this comment I asked the other folk on Twitter what they thought about having young people on boards. Here are some of the responses:

todddavies “my experience as a Gen X is that boards can get stayed and dull without a Gen Y or two.”

Rebecca Vassarotti “I know plenty of older people with no governance exper. Everyone has to learn.”
Michel Hogan “because we need diversity on Boards as well as experience and also need to build future generation”

At the end of his presentation I had a chance to ask Philip to elaborate on his earlier comment, and asked him how he got his first gig on a board. He told me that his comment was more to do with “getting young people on boards just for the sake of understanding what young people want”.

He also told us that his first board appointment was when he had just graduated from law school, and he was recruited by his local synagogue – a great learning space for him, I imagine.

One of my favourite sessions of the weekend was run by Sallie Saunders from Building Better Boards, on “Assessing the CEO: the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The key message that came from this session was that a thriving NGO relies on good relationships, in particular the relationship between the CEO and the board.

She said that if you can be the CEO of an NGO, you can pretty much run the country. This was on the one hand a light-hearted comment, but when you look at the qualities, role and responsibilities of a CEO, they aren’t dissimilar to those that are required of a PM.

It’s no surprise then that she considers the CEO to be the most precious asset of an NGO.

Recruiting, developing and assessing the CEO is the only HR job a board has, and Sallie stressed that if directors can’t find reasons to support the CEO, then it’s probably time for them to get off the board.

So what makes it work?

  • keep board development and appraisal on the agenda – it’s a 2-way street
  • set targets for board achievement
  • talk about the difference between strategic and operational matters
  • keep reporting demands to a minimum
  • use the board expertise to add value to the work of the organisation
  • provide support and advice, especially when requested
  • avoid getting involved in staff matters
  • ask the CEO how the board can help (and listen to the answer)
  • the Director’s default position should be to support the CEO. If that’s not the position, then follow grievance procedures.

Later that afternoon there was a lively debate about the question of NGO board remuneration – “to pay or not to pay”?

On the affirmative team:

  • Victor Harcourt, Principle, Russell Kennedy
  • Dean Phelan, CEO, Churches of Christ in QLD
  • Christine Jones, Dispute Resolution Practitioner

Arguing against:

  • Brian Herd, Partner, Carne Reidy Herd Lawyers
  • Alexandra Zammit, CEO, Thomas Holt

The debate itself was pretty entertaining, but the thing I was most impressed with was the live polling and Q&A that was taking place via PigeonHole as the debate progressed.

The idea was to vote on the question of the debate “Should not-for-profit boards be remunerated?” before the discussion took place, as well as afterwards. The MC then compared the results to see whether the speakers had convinced the audience to change their opinions.

In the end there was a shift from something like 65% of delegates thinking that NGO boards should be remunerated, to almost an even split.

I really loved the fact that with PigeonHole delegates were not only able to pose a question to the panel, but also “vote up” other delegates’ questions that they really wanted to hear the answer to.

I think the inclusivity that this kind of tool offers is really valuable, because it means that people who may not feel confident enough to stand up in front of a crowd to ask a question can articulate their idea through a written submission. They can even participate anonymously if they perhaps don’t want the subject of their question to be linked with their organisation or board.

From a strategic communication perspective, I would be really interested to know why the BBC2013 team placed a much greater emphasis on dialogic and digital communication this year as compared to last year (when there was virtually nothing). I’d like to think it had something to do with the feedback I provided!

As Sunday approached I began to reflect on my time volunteering with the YWCA of Canberra. The last 12 months in particular have been a huge period of growth for me.

There are a few guarantees that come with volunteering for an organisation like the Y:

1. You will have the opportunity to work with inspiring, bright, courageous, like-minded women of all ages
2. You will be afforded opportunities to grow your personal and professional experience
3. You will at times, find yourself completely out of your comfort zone thinking “how on earth did I get talked into this?”

But rest assured, you will have the support, encouragement, and expertise of a community of women who want nothing more than to share your success with you.

This is kind of how I felt when Ruth asked me to co-present with her at the Conference this year, but I’m so glad that I accepted her invitation.

Our presentation focused on telling the story of how the board of the YWCA of Canberra developed its 15-year strategic plan. To put the presentation together, Ruth interviewed a bunch of past board members and the Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti. The aim was for them to tell the story from their perspective, with Ruth and I providing the commentary around the implications for the current board.

Typically I felt pretty anxious in the lead up to delivering this presentation, but of course it all ran very smoothly!

We had enough time for a 15 minute Q&A session at the end, and later received some really positive feedback from delegates, including CEOs and directors from a range of NGOs.

If you’re interested in checking out the Better Boards Conference as a professional development opportunity for your board, I highly recommend it.

There is something for everyone, no matter how “new” or “experienced” your board directors are, whether your NGO is service-provision focused, or an advocacy organisation, or how big your budget is.

One of Her Canberra’s 15 Women to Watch in 2015

Her Canberra - 15 Women to Watch

Nominated for Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women of 2013

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