Case study: On the Line


On the Line is a professional social health business providing counselling support, anywhere and anytime. On the Line’s highly trained workforce delivers telephone, web chat and video counselling, and social media moderation services 24/7 to more than 80,200 people each year.

On the Line recently achieved gender parity, with 4 women and 4 men on its 8-member board.

We chat with Jeanette Jifkins, chair of the On the Line Board, to discover how actively recruiting for diversity in skills, gender and cultural background has helped the board achieve a clear strategic direction, and drive growth in the organisation.


Jeanette joined the On the Line Board in 2013 and applied for the role of chair when the position became vacant in 2015.

Jeanette’s appointment as Board Chair came at a time of major change for the organisation. Within the first 3 months of Jeanette’s appointment the CEO, CFO and 3 positions on the board became vacant. When considering the approach to recruitment, Jeanette and the board were clear that diversity was important, and that to achieve diversity of thought they would need to actively make it a priority.

Our clients and our workforce are a diverse group; we need to reflect that on our board and bring diverse insights into what our clients and our workforce need.

For Jeanette diversity is about diversity of thought, experience and insight, and hence it is broader than just gender.

Actively recruiting for diversity

Strategic planning for the organisation was the foundation for determining the skills and experience that the board needed, and from there the board developed its approach to recruiting the board members.

The board delegated the recruitment process to the remuneration and nominations committee with direction on the skills required given the organisation’s strategic objectives—these were clinical, legal, accounting, marketing and fundraising, IT, and human resource skills, as well as business acumen and the ability to develop relationships with government. It was agreed that the positions would be advertised widely, and that the adverts should encourage diversity of responses.

We recruit our CEO and other Executive team members through an open, formal recruitment process, so why not board members?

Jeanette was clear that recruitment from the pool of people that were already known to the board was not an option, and she set clear expectations with the committee about considering a diverse group of candidates. The board agreed that should a diverse applicant pool not be achieved they would advertise again.

The impact

The board has undertaken 2 rounds of recruitment since 2015 and now has a gender diverse board, with 4 women and 4 men, as well as being culturally and age diverse. A recent board evaluation concluded that the current composition of the board is effective.

The impact on the functioning and effectiveness of the board is:

  • a broader range of perspectives on the issues they consider, and better decisions as a result of the depth of discussion it brings
  • a culture of respect, where people can speak their minds
  • the absence of "power plays".

Jeanette believes On the Line is now resilient and sustainable, and poised to expand their services through innovation and technology.

Supporting flexible boards

On the Line has 2 board members who have recently started families: 1 male and 1 female.

The board has used technology to enable new parents to attend meetings. This has been important for when they can't make it in person due to family commitments.

The board also considered granting parental leave for another board member. The board reviewed various resources from AICD and the Governance Institute and insurer on this matter. They wanted to retain the board member's expertise but not expose them to undue risk during their parental leave. The board was keen for the board member to continue contributing to the organisation upon their return.

Jeanette said:

During parental leave, board members will remain covered by insurance. They will not receive board papers but will receive general updates from other board members, and they will attend our strategy day.

Jeanette reflects that continuing to support gender diversity through technology adoption is important.

An essential factor in retaining talent is to support members during periods of parental leave.

Lessons learned

Jeanette reflects that building diversity—not just in gender but in skills and cultural background as well—takes effort. It must be top of mind and a key consideration of the board recruitment process.

She advises boards to start from their strategic vision and what they need to achieve, and then to consider the skills, insights and experience the board needs to make that happen. Equally important is consideration of the clients that the organisation serves, and how their needs, wants and ideas will be represented on the board. Once this is understood the recruitment process can begin, and diversity should be a priority throughout.

It requires planning and thought, it’s not something that will just happen.