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HEA: What Happened? Committee Dysfunction

Beverley Paine, HEA member 2003-2004, 2007-2018, regular volunteer, served on committee and various subcommittees, state chapter foundation member, newsletter editor, magazine editor and producer.

Much of what occurs in a community organisation is unknown to the members: most members join to enjoy the benefits on offer and are usually kept informed by a regular newsletter. Few dive  deeper and get to know the inner workings, how the whole thing operates, and how those benefits and services come into being in the first place. 

I've been a volunteer and a committee member and to be honest, given what went down at the Home Education Association (HEA) last year - and the smouldering fire that still hasn't been completely extinguished - I am disinclined to volunteer for anything like that again! 

Visit the HEA webpage and you'll see one version of events. It comes across as the official record and well, that may be the case. But it doesn't tell the whole story.

The story it doesn't tell is of a very dysfunctional committee, one that was struggling to know its own business and meet legal requirements for several years. A committee made up of volunteers doing their best, giving it all they had, in their own ways, but failing to support each other. 

It's a story of a group of people, most of whom had only met online, some with prior committee experience and knowledge, and others drawing on their work or life experience and skills. People  working diligently on behalf of others, getting it right some of the time and not so right the rest of the time. And that's okay, isn't it? We don't expect perfection from volunteers, do we? We don't expect them to be professionals, do we? 

But this is an incorporated national association, which had a membership of 1300 home educating families and regarded itself as a voice to government and its bureaucracy for those families. It is an association that seeks to be the voice of all Australian home educating families. 

The HEA had a substantial operating budget, ran a website, an information help line, a discounted resources subscription service, a members' newsletter and was active politically. Sounds a lot like a professional outfit, doesn't it?  

So what happened? How did its committee become so dysfunctional? How does any committee? 

Mushrooms. They grow well in the dark but shine a light on the stuff they're growing in and they fail to thrive. Organisations shouldn't be like mushrooms.

The light started to shine on the HEA when it received notice in 2016 from the Office of Fair Trading NSW and Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission that the association was urgently required to submit overdue annual reports to maintain its incorporated and charitable status. 

Unfortunately the HEA had neglected to include financial statements at two successive AGMs. Why? Because those financial statements and reports didn't exist. What? Say again!? 

Important, legally required information was not compiled and provided to members and to the OFT or ACNC. 

Now that's a big omission for a committee. A huge neglect of fiduciary responsibility. 

How does a committee end up at this sorry position? 

For some reason the association had been operating without an effective treasurer: an extremely irresponsible position given that the committee regularly made financial decisions on behalf of the membership.  

Using the association's bank statements and what minutes were available (some were ‘missing'), the secretary and a newly appointed treasurer painstakingly pieced the legally required 2013, 2014 and 2015 reports and statements together, thereby saving the association from deregistration. 

The association did lose its charity and DGR (ability to receive tax deductable donations) status with the ACNC due to lack of diligence with completing and filing the necessary paperwork, but was lucky to obtain it back again.   

Concerns were raised by the secretary that the committee was failing in several other areas: it had omitted to keep sufficiently detailed minutes, follow correct meeting procedures, run AGMs properly and in accordance to the constitution, and keep secure its data regarding members and association business. 

During 2016 and 2017 there were formal complaints sent to the committee that were inadequately addressed. Some were mishandled: there was non-disclosure of conflicts of interest and involved members failed to recuse themselves. The complaints ‘dropped off' the agenda, usually unanswered: disappeared by neglect.

One of the ways to ensure avoidance of a recurrence of these kinds of problems is to establish a ‘paper trail', where email communication establishes workflow and responsibilities. At a glance anyone on the committee can see who is responsible and taking care of different tasks, and that these are completed in reasonable time. 

Keeping records can be dreary, boring work but it is incredibly enabling. It ensures the sustainability of an organisation. It is the basis of all future planning. It tells you what worked and what didn't work. Review of records aid organisations to reflect on their purpose and help identify if change is needed, and if so, clarify what needs to change and how to implement those changes. 

An organisation's paper trail can also stop duplication of work, by letting each volunteer know what others are doing (and why). Recording is so important there are regulations stipulating what records must be kept and how they must be kept. And this leads us to another vital aspect of organisational life: training. Volunteers need to be inducted, given the information needed on how to work and operate responsibly in the organisation, how to keep track of and report their activities to the committee so that it can effectively govern and know the association's business. 

One of the things that fell apart at the HEA was this need to keep appropriate records. Prior to 2017, much of the association's business had been done in Facebook chats on Messenger. Emails were sent between volunteers, decisions made and acted upon and not noted anywhere. Minutes from subcommittee meetings were not prepared and reports were not tabled at committee meetings. 

To access HEA records before 2017 would require access to archived Facebook and Yahoo groups (if they still exist, if access passwords have been passed on, if the association actually has a record of who held those passwords…) We all know how it is with the internet and passwords, especially if there were many groups operating under the umbrella of the association… and there were. Incorrect handling of passwords resulted in the HEA members database being hacked in 2018.

Everything was done in, well, a rather friendly and casual way. And it is easy to see why: not everyone can touch-type. It takes a fair bit of energy to take notes, write up the minutes or a report. And it can be hard to take minutes when meetings don't follow the agenda, jump here and there and sometimes don't even get to the listed items… 

If you've ever been a committee member of a local community club you're probably nodding, familiar with the territory. And to be honest, it's why a lot of us don't volunteer to go on committees.  It can be extremely frustrating volunteering in an environment where everyone seems to be second-guessing who did or said what when, or when a particular task was done or due. Or work is endlessly replicated…  

Together with two new contracted admin staff, the majority of the committee began to work to bring a level of professionalism, clearly missing for some time, to its operations and procedures. They established that all important paper-trail. The decision to transfer the virtual office from the old clunky wiki-site to the superior GSuite ( part of the much needed website redevelopment ) also meant that HEA communication and correspondence would be stored, available as a resource when required.

There was a culture among a small group of volunteers in the association that weren't keen on changing to accommodate the emerging recognition of the need to be more diligent and accurate with keeping appropriate records. They were happy with the status quo, they saw no need to change the way the HEA had been operating. 

A few key HEA volunteers argued - long and hard - against writing and publishing minutes in a fashion that was easily accessible to members.

Properly recorded and printed minutes are the way an appropriately functioning association knows its own business. Minutes show members what motions were tabled and voted on at each meeting, a legal obligation of an incorporated association. A review of the minutes of the association going back years demonstrates that this wasn't regularly practiced. How is the association to know its own business if it doesn't keep track of important decisions? 

Or that decisions were made in accordance with the rules of the association? On one occasion in 2017 a member perusing an important decision discovered and reported a voting irregularity, and the decision was subsequently declared invalid.

Poor committee procedures - not setting and following agendas and managing input from all committee members and guests - can lead to mistakes of this nature.

The HEA used the practice of holding a 'continual' committee meeting facilitated via a forum. This was originally instigated to get through and cover an ever increasing workload as the association sought to grow to provide benefits to members. Protocols that had been put in place to ensure voting on decisions occured had ceased to happen, a failure of executive leadership to ensure proper processes are followed.

This resulted in unauthorised actions occuring, with some volunteers operating autonomously, making decisions 'on the run' without majority approval or oversight by the committee.

There are other key and important areas of neglect, things that should have been done but got waylaid despite good intentions, such as organising hand-over of signatories to the association's bank account after AGMs. The tyranny of distance, forever an issue in an organisation where committee members live in different states, is a factor. However, this is the 21st century, neglecting to follow up in a timely manner is unprofessional and lets down the membership.

Attempts to bring all volunteers up to speed with the new communications procedures were strongly resisted by a handful of members. This began the undercurrent of discontent and fed the growing schism between volunteers.

A decision was made in 2016 to redevelop the website, and the secretary was tasked with overseeing the project in liaison with the company contracted to do the work, reported back to the committee on progress, with major decisions to be discussed and handled by the committee. 

Everything was on track to be delivered when the slowly festering schism, perceived at this stage by some volunteers as created by competing factions seeking ‘control' of the association, erupted at an unruly, badly-chaired committee meeting. 

The simmering conflict was projected onto elements of the design and branding of the new website. It played out in HEA GSuite forums, and ‘sides' were firmly established. 

One side doggedly focused on the design and branding of the website as the point of ignition and ongoing cause of the conflict. 

The other side pointed to entrenched habits that gave rise to dysfunctional committee processes and the desperate need for the HEA to become more professional and responsible.

In addition, there was a general confusion about the meaning of many of the rules (Constitution) of the association.

When raised as a standard of behaviour and procedure, the legitimacy of the association's long standing Codes of Ethics and Conduct were questioned.

One side of the schism denied the existence of the dysfunction and began to organise support for a future committee that would ensure the status quo remained the same. The other side threatened to remove members if the dysfunction continued. 

Accusations of bullying abounded in acrimonious online discussions that never rested. This practice of instant communication, of continuous discussions of committee business all hours of the day, seven days a week had become an accepted feature of committee and volunteer life in the association. It is an exhausting practice that undermines effective communication. Ultimately it undermines committee processes. And it places unreasonable demands on volunteers.    

A deep rift, where volunteer hurt volunteer and respect was abandoned, tore at the heart of the association. Committee members and volunteers started resigning. 

It was in this high stakes, high tension, stress-filled, unworkable environment that decisions were made that, under normal circumstances where respect is maintained and ego is left at the door, would never have  happened. 

Let's remember that these volunteers were ordinary, everyday busy home educating parents. Volunteers. They had signed up to work, on a voluntary basis, for a couple of hours a week. Not this incessant, demanding need to be on call every minute of the day, working overtime to solve conflicts that, had the association been operating properly in accordance with legal requirements,  would not have occurred. 

Made aware that ‘branch stacking' meetings were held to obtain nominees aligned with one side's position, the committee postponed the announced AGM. 

Two members were expelled. They did not appeal the decision. The committee chose not to publicly discuss the reasons with the membership citing respect for the privacy of the members.  

Concerned by the competing interpretations put forward by both sides of the schism, a  member suggested a subcommittee be convened to review the constitution, with the hope that some clarity may be forthcoming. Unfortunately, the review was interpreted and promoted by a minority of members as a hostile action. 

A petition was organised to support the expelled members by a group of volunteers and circulated widely in the online home educating community. A Facebook group purporting to be an official HEA group called members and non-members to act against the committee. 

The committee sought advice from the NSW Office of Fair Trading regarding the actions it had taken. 

It began to receive letters from a lawyer representing the expelled members, threatening non-specified members with defamation and demanding that the expelled member, who claimed to be president of the association, chair the AGM. 

Upon receipt of the petition the committee set a date for the special general meeting. A date was set for the AGM. 

At this stage, due to the extreme stress and duress the committee had been operating under for over six months, all but two of the committee members had resigned. The turn-over of committee members during 2017 and early 2018 tells the story clearly enough. Members would volunteer, realise the workload was untenable and resign. Other members, worn down by the antagonistic and toxic nature of the ongoing schism, cited health reasons that were created or exacerbated by the bullying behaviour. 

On the morning of the AGM the independent chair (a member with no involvement or vested interest in the outcome) was sent a letter written by the lawyer addressed to one of the expelled members by a third party, and he withdrew as chair. The AGM was adjourned, pending legal advice. 

That evening a group of members held a meeting, appointed a committee and began calling themselves the HEA committee.

The consequences of not having a legitimately elected committee were dire. The NSW Office of Fair Trading listed the HEA as ‘in dispute'. The HEA's bank accounts were frozen. Its webmaster froze access to the membership database.

The group of members purporting to be the committee proceeded to support action in the NSW Supreme Court taken by the two expelled members and another member against the last two committee members and the two admin staff. 

The next article will cover why all four defendants were dismissed or discontinued with no case to answer, and how the plaintiffs came to sue the HEA instead.

see also:

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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