Case study: YWCA Queensland Board
YWCA Queensland has been supporting women and girls in Queensland since 1888 and is described as 'a vibrant, progressive women’s organisation with a vision to empower women and girls to "find their possible" across 3 cornerstones of empowerment: Leadership, Economic Participation and Safety and Wellbeing'.
Denise Morton, former Chairperson of YWCA Queensland, shared her experience in setting up subcommittees to support the board to make better decisions and provide opportunities for women to be board-ready.
Setting up the subcommittees
In 2015, when Denise was appointed as the YWCA Queensland Chairperson, she set up a subcommittee structure to support her newly elected board members and to ensure they had the right skill mix to move the organisation forward. As a result, 4 subcommittees were created, with a board member responsible for each one:
- People and culture
- Finance, audit and risk
In conjunction with the subcommittees, YWCA also developed a year-long leadership intern program for a young woman to be exposed to the board and committee work without being a member of the board/committee. Both the subcommittee and intern program provides YWCA an opportunity to assess potential board members and to prepare young women for leadership roles.
Denise identified 'culture fit for the boardroom' as a key challenge and as 'very important for the team' given that 'it must work cohesively and have robust decision-making'. As such, the subcommittee structure allows her and her team to assess whether a person is a cultural fit and a suitable candidate before joining the board, akin to a 'try before you buy' approach, as she describes it.
'Time availability' is another challenge identified by Denise as each YWCA board member plays an active role in supporting and meeting with their respective subcommittee.
As Denise said:
It takes time to get everyone up to speed with things especially given how busy everyone is. For young women with careers, in particular, their work comes first so it’s about balancing our time commitment to the YWCA with our other commitments, along with supporting each other.
Better decision making
Through the subcommittees, Denise says that:
The board definitely gets better decision-making.
An example of this includes the People and Culture subcommittee currently helping the board to better understand a current restructure of the organisation where the board does not have expertise in this area.
For those who have ambitions to be on the board but lack experience, it’s an opportunity for them to develop their board knowledge, processes, and skills through working directly with the board members and the various initiatives under each subcommittee. At the same time, the subcommittee structure is a suitable forum for those who do not harbour board ambitions as it allows them to contribute their expertise to the organisation and community without the risks and responsibilities of a board member.
Furthermore, as the subcommittee members are not required to be elected periodically or have YWCA membership, it allows the organisation to better retain knowledge and broaden its capability with independent appointments whilst the intern program allows it to foster young female talent. As Denise puts it, 'it’s a win-win situation for us and the individual'.
Denise suggests that amongst the top lessons learned is 'the importance of having a clear understanding of the business and its strategy' which sets the tone of the organisation and the subcommittees in this instance.
In setting up the subcommittees, Denise says:
It’s vital for the terms of reference to be clear so the subcommittees understand their role.
This is to protect the subcommittee members from any legal liability and to prevent a ‘shadow director’ situation. As such, the terms of reference for the subcommittee specify what decision-making authority the subcommittees have, with key strategic decisions remaining in the ambit of the board's authority.