It is extremely important for regional sport trusts (RSTs) to have strong working relationships with regional sport organisations (RSOs). Strong links encourage RSOs to get involved in RST activities. That in turn fosters the RST’s understanding of what the RSOs, their member clubs and the wider community need – and how best to deliver on this.
Sport Northland has an excellent way to engage with, and respond to, over 45 Northland RSOs on an ongoing basis. The RSOs affiliate to Sport Northland by paying a $25 annual fee. In addition to the services offered by Sport Northland, affiliation entitles the RSOs to nominate and vote for six trustee positions on Sport Northland’s board.
This very direct connection helps to make Sport Northland a successful ‘servant leader’ to the region’s sports community – as opposed to simply being a service provider to investor organisations.
Sport Northland has used the elected trustee structure since the organisation was established in 1991 when its two founding trusts were merged. “It works so well for us there has never been any thought of changing,” reflects Chief Executive Brent Eastwood.
Perhaps surprisingly it’s a unique governance solution. For any other RST looking at strengthening their bonds with their local RSOs, it’s certainly a template worth considering.
How it works
At the time of writing, Sport Northland has a total of 14 board trustees. They are:
- three trustees appointed each year by an appointments panel. The panel consists of the board chairperson, a former trustee, and an independent community representative.
- four trustees appointed by local and regional councils. One trustee represents each council.
- six trustees voted onto the board by RSOs and trustees for a three-year term.
- one co-opted trustee – people can be co-opted onto the board for specific projects.
The six elected trustees open up the opportunity for RSO representation to occur. Each year, two of the six positions come up for election, with the vote made at Sport Northland’s AGM.
When notification of the AGM is sent out to affiliated RSOs who have paid their $25 annual membership, a form is enclosed to nominate trustee candidates.
RSOs can nominate anyone they choose - nominees don’t need to come from within their organisation. Most years, around five nominations are received. In addition, the two existing trustees can stand for re-election (there’s no maximum term on the Sport Northland board).
At the AGM, all candidates are offered the opportunity to stand up and talk about why they’d make a good trustee. Each affiliated RSO can have a representative cast a vote for each of the two positions. All 14 current trustees also vote. Votes must be cast at the meeting, as there are no proxy votes.
If a club or clubs have no regional body to represent them in Northland, a neighbouring RSO or their national body can become affiliated. Voting rights can then be delegated to a local club representative.
“Our AGM is like any other AGM, it’s usually all over in an hour. But it gets stakeholders involved. It gives a reason for interested RSOs to come along and it connects them with the organisation,” explains Brent.
“We have a strong board. There’s a really good spread of age, skill and experience. We get at least one new person each year - there’s a continual freshening of the board,” he says.
Sport Northland Chairman Richie Guy says the governance structure has brought real benefit. “I think the way we have structured the recruitment of trustees has definitely improved the strength of the board. It has really come a long way over the last 10 years,” he observes.
The four council-appointed trustees represent the Far North, Kaipara, and Whangarei District Councils and also the Northland Regional Council. This ensures a strong relationship and good communication between Sport Northland and the Northland Councils.
The three trustees who are appointed annually by the panel enable skill gaps to be closed. For example, if none of the elected trustees have specialist accountancy skills, the panel would “shoulder tap”, interview and (if they are agree the candidate would add value) appoint an accountant to join the board.
Stimulating a strong board culture
The Sport Northland board culture deserves mention because a strong board attracts strong candidates – it’s a positive cycle. Trustee benefits include free membership to Kensington Fitness, a Sport Northland owned and managed facility.
The monthly board meetings (90-minutes duration, maximum) are preceded by dinner, offering an hour of social time where trustees can get to know each other outside of the structured meeting time. There are also a couple of social functions each year, where trustees can mix with spouses and partners.
“Friendships are forged. It’s engendered a really good connection. This helps immensely in board cohesion – you get a board that really gels,” Richie says of the social time. “It’s like what occurs at staff level. You try to stimulate a culture, to help build a positive environment. It shouldn’t be any different at board level.” Trustees are not paid. The board reconsiders this issue each year, but to date trustees have always said they don’t want remuneration.
“It buoys me because I’m sure people are there for the right reasons. They are passionate. It seems to sit better that we don’t get meeting fees – although we do try to look after them in the other ways,” says Richie.
- The annual board elections (for two positions) give RSOs a reason to attend the Sport Northland AGM, and become informed about what’s going on. Having a democratic system of governance empowers the RSOs – even if they choose not to vote or attend the AGM.
- The four local and regional council trustees ensure direct lines of communication with the councils and a council perspective in all board decisions. “Councils are big players in, and are key stakeholders of, the sport and recreation industry. It makes sense in our opinion to have them sitting around the board table,” says Richie.
- The board is seen as a good one by the local community. As such, it attracts people with proven skills and commitment. Brent notes that whereas in the past many sports organisation boards would include members who had progressed through club administration, now trustees come from a diverse range of backgrounds. “There are people with wide range of skills. It’s seen locally as a good board to build experience in governance,” he says.
- The structure of the board allows flexibility, and encourages freshness. The appointments panel can bring in people as needed on a year-by-year basis. Because two trustee positions come up for re-election each year, there’s a continual flow of fresh talent. While there’s no maximum term, only two current trustees have been on the board for longer than 10 years. That means there’s a good balance of experience and freshness.
- Having a strong board also encourages trustees to keep learning, and in turn to keep improving as board members. Professional development opportunities are encouraged and an annual board/individual trustee review is undertaken. This ensures trustees are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses - and gives them a chance to work on them.
“There don’t seem to be any flaws in the system,” concludes Brent. “We have a strong board and we have the ability to attract and retain a strong mix of skills.” “It’s one of the more enjoyable boards I have served on,” says Richie, a vastly experienced chairman at local, regional and national levels. This enjoyment, coupled with a ‘best practice’ focus, ensures that a quality board will be a feature of Sport Northland’s operation in the foreseeable future.
Contacts and links
To know more contact Brent Eastwood – CEO, Sport Northland: 09-470-3205 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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