Is relevance connected to good governance?

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STEVEN CULL

SCOUTING IRELAND VERSUS SPUNOUT

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about transparency and governance in the youth organisations which are having a big impact on Irish society, particularly those which are focusing on the needs of young adults. If you have a similar interest (!), it is worth looking at this page on the SpunOut website.

SpunOut describes itself as a community of young people channelled by a not-for-profit website created by young people for young people. Its goal is to enable young people to live happy, healthy lives where they can avail of opportunities and build a bright future for themselves. Sound good? It is also a leader in transparency and governance in the youth sector and it is the first port of call for the media for comment on young people’s issues.

Should Scouting Ireland be looking to learn from its model?

SpunOut is a signatory to the Statement of Guiding Principles on Fundraising list, (interesting to note that Irish Girl Guides is a signatory) and the Governance Code for voluntary organisations which at this time Scouting Ireland is not, though it is apparently working towards compliance with the Governance Code (though it is not registered as such on its website, like Irish Girl Guides, which is on the “adoption journey”). We are constantly told Scouting Ireland is the largest and fastest growing youth movement in Ireland, so it would seem strange that it has not yet become a signatory to items such as these, or at least it might have explained to its members why it is not.

Formal declarations aside, Scouting Ireland is perceived by its members as being secretive. The Vision 2020 process/debacle proved this point. Those at the “top” acknowledged that the process had been flawed, but asked the movement to give them the benefit of the doubt when casting their votes at National Council 2014. They were greeted with a pretty resounding “no”. The trust deficit says a lot about the perception of how the organisation is governed. So the need for a re-think is clear.

BY YOUNG PEOPLE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

SpunOut’s operations are guided by its Action Panel. A group of 20 young people from around the country form the Action Panel which “gives leadership to the organisation”. The staff manages the day-to-day running of SpunOut while the Action Panel gives “the direction and leadership to stay in touch with the views and needs of the young people of Ireland”. It also has a board. I could write another piece on the use of the word “also” in his context! The Action Panel sounds like our National Youth Representatives. Can you sense the day when Scouting Ireland’s operations are given “direction and leadership” by the National Youth Representatives, while there is also a National Management Committee?

THE PRICE OF GOOD GOVERANCE?

The average cost in 2013 of each SpunOut board meeting was €163 (not per person I must add, in total!). I’m going to go out on a limb and guesstimate that each NMC costs 8-10 times that. Good governance needn’t be expensive!

The transparency and style of governance I have spoken about must have a significant impact on funders. The expectations of people who support and fund organisations such as ours (and there are lots of them, so it seems – whether through modest “crowdfunding” style operations or through larger philanthropic partnerships) are used to a style of transparency like this. The literature and media comment on this bear out this fact. Research by nfpsynergy suggests that in absence of information, people tend to over-estimate how much non-profits spent on administration, hardly a good thing.

SpunOut, along with many non-profits, publishes its CEO’s salary and confirms that it pays no bonuses. With funding pressure on Scouting Ireland, even going to the national newspapers to say so, how potential funders see us is very important. With SpunOut, stakeholders can immediately see that remuneration structures are modest and that this is an organisation which is keen to “push” information about its governance and decision making out there rather than just fulfilling company law obligations. Scouting Ireland does not have page on its website where information is available on how it chooses to govern itself. Decision making seems distant from the stakeholder. And god forbid you ask what National Office staff are paid (other than in aggregate). Not in Fatima were such things known to so few. The word on the street is that not even the all-seeing NMC is privy to this information (though I’m always open to correction). “Pushing” the information is key, because donors want transparency but lack “the time or inclination to trawl through accounts or annual reports to investigate” according to nfpsynergy. If you’ve time on your hands check out what the NCVO has to say on trust and “two clicks” to charity CEO salary.

“PUBLISH BY DEFAULT”

It is also interesting to note from its 2013 Annual Report that SpunOut has a policy of “publish by default”. Could Scouting Ireland do with such a policy? Should we all have a vague idea of what is going on at meetings of the NMC and its standing committees, or is absolutely every item top secret and above the ken of the rest of us? I suggest that we have a long way to go in this regard.

MIXING IT WITH THE MEDIA – authenticity vs authority

The two organisations are, of course, completely different animals. That does not mean, I contend, that we do not have a lot to learn from SpunOut, which is possibly the most relevant movement in the lives of young adults in Ireland… The first port of call for Morning Ireland, Primetime, RTÉ children’s programming, the Irish Times, Ireland AM etc for comment on youth issues seems to be SpunOut, without fail. SpunOut is also not afraid to put young people out there front and centre to discuss youth issues. Is Scouting Ireland minded to do this, or is an adult seen as the only safe pair of hands to represent the young people who participate in its activities?

You could say that that large organisations like ours are different and that different rules apply, but the impact of SpunOut is tough to challenge. SpunOut is, of course, not our competitor, as more organisations supporting young people is a great thing. But maybe we need to look at this young, dynamic organisation for advice on being relevant, transparent and successful in the young adult “market”.

Any thoughts on how we govern and what we publish? Are we being left behind in the media, and is it correlated to our transparency and how is our credibility effected by the fact that, even to those of us who are already members, decision making is all a mystery and behind firmly closed doors?

All information on SpunOut is garnered from its website spunout.ie. Any errors or misinterpretations are the author’s.

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