Behind the scenes of a community conservation NGO

Mucking in: Signage celebrating track upgrades courtesy of local community groups and Warkworth Forest & Bird branch

A few years ago, I wrote a list of all of the skills needed by community conservation groups to carry out their restoration mahi (works). Terms such as “bottom up” or “grass roots” don’t give justice to the complexity of community conservation because skills needed range from hands on field work to a multitude of organisational activities. Ultimately, to achieve successful outcomes, strong governance is called for. Working in community conservation over the years in various roles (researcher, facilitator, project developer and coordinator), I decided it was time to work in a more strategic role, and joined the Board of Forest & Bird.

With around 80,000 members, over 45 branches nation-wide and a growing number of dynamic Youth Hubs, Forest & Bird is the largest and oldest environmental conservation NGO in Aotearoa – by far. I’ve had the pleasure of serving two terms (4 yrs) on the Board contributing to working groups to review decisions to mount legal appeals; develop draft kaupapa Māori Strategy and Te Ao Māori Policy and research F&B’s members’ views on revising the organisation’s electoral system. I also helped update a slew of outdated policies and revised the reporting structures for F&B managed reserves and assets. More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of assisting the Board Chair (Mark Hangar), Deputy (Kate Graeme) and another Board member (Chris Barker) interview for a new CE following the retirement of former CE, Kevin Hague.

The National Office of Forest & Bird is in Wellington, a city that always inspires me with its blend of nature and creativity

Governance: the bigger picture

In the community-led environmental sector, most people are extraordinarily good at multi-tasking. That’s a given for any organisation run by a handful of people and a cluster of willing volunteers on the smell of an oily rag. But running an organisation effectively, means stepping back, and looking at the bigger picture, over longer time horizons.

Governance is about how an organisation is run…  all the strategies, systems, processes and controls … [for] where the organisation is now, where it is going and what is needed to get it there.

There are hundreds of environmental societies and trusts in Aotearoa. Depending on their scale and goals, most likely have 8-12 trustees (almost always pro bono). For significant projects, there are sometimes other structures e.g., steering groups, technical and/or scientific advisory groups. For smaller organisations, trustees usually have a hand in operations as well as oversight. However, for Forest & Bird, operations are firmly in the Chief Executive’s domain. This means a lot of the F&B Board mahi lies behind the scenes and it’s generally high-level, including strategic plans and policies development, ops plan reviews, branch liaison; awards, grants, donations and bequests to consider and countless other activities all against a backdrop of politics, economics and THAT pandemic.

Bird count station at the tranquil Ohinetonga Lagoon

What is good governance?

There’s no solid research in Aotearoa that investigates how community group governance structures influence the group’s conservation outcomes. Given the sheer quantity of environmental trusts and societies and the critical role governance plays, this comes as a surprise. But as thin consolation, there are various how-to guides covering how to be an effective trustee and operating successful Boards from the Predator Free NZ Trust and Community Net.

Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi

With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

This whakatauki/proverb describes how everybody has something to offer, and by working collaboratively we can all be successful.

Forest & Bird: A century of good works

In the coming year, F&B will celebrate one hundred years of fighting to stop short-sighted environmental destruction. A century of hands-on projects doing the grunt work: controlling pests and weeds, growing native plants and nurturing them in the landscape, reintroducing missing species. A century of advocacy: developing material to inform and enlighten the public; writing countless submissions and mounting ongoing legal challenges to prevent or at least reduce environmental damage.

The unique chenier shell plains at Pūkorokoro Miranda on the Thames coast. Ongoing volunteer work is vital for keeping weeds at bay and controlling the numerous pests that predate the shorebirds.

As I step out of Forest & Bird, the new CE, Nicola Toki is settling in. My experience on the Board was extremely valuable: I learnt what it takes to operate an effective Board, what I was good at, as well as what I was not so good at. But that’s what it’s all about, being open to new experiences, acquiring new skills, sharing knowledge and ultimately, gaining a richer understanding of community conservation in Aotearoa.  

A huge thank you to:

To the Board Chair and Deputy chair and Board members 2018 – 2022

Departing CE Kevin Hague and new CE Nicola Toki

Branches and their committee members I’ve come to know over the years.

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