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Choose your governance model
In this topic, we discuss how to choose your governance model. We take you through what you need to consider to find the governance model that fits the purpose of your organisation, community or nation.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What is the main reason your group has come together? What are you trying to achieve?
- Does your group have expectations about the appropriate model for your governance?
- Does your group want a formalised governance model? Or keep things more flexible and informal?
- What aspects of your culture need to lie at the heart of the type of model you build?
Types of governance models
A governance model is a framework used by organisations, communities and nations to create order in their group. It ties together the rules, relationships, systems and processes that influence how authority is organised. There are many types of governance models.
The governance models of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders groups are unique. They’re based on:
- interconnected layers of leadership
- groups of people
- land-ownership rights and interests.
Different governance models have different arrangements, depending on what suits your group. This includes whether your group decides to legally incorporate, or to remain informal and flexible. If your group decides to incorporate there are different structures you can choose from. The structure you select might influence what governance model is most appropriate for your group.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples show considerable innovation with contemporary governance arrangements. Groups have designed governance models to achieve their aspirations and goals.
These models include:
- informal, unincorporated collective groups of action in a single community
- small, localised groups who incorporate under state or national legislation – for example, Purple House
- voluntary coalitions of incorporated organisations
- centralised hub and spokes models – these have a large geographic coverage with locally based representation – for example, Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation
- incorporated regional or territory-wide peak organisations – for example, Desart or Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory
- hybrid arrangements that include elements of all the above.
Some groups adopt a single self-contained governance model. Others explore wider connections and economies of scale. These groups use a style of networked governance. This makes it possible to use governance models that transfer power to the local level or interconnected governance models that draw on elements from different models.
These models provide different ways of working across a variety of group interests, communities, geographic regions and organisations. For example, each model offers different ways of developing:
- community representation – for example, community-level decision making
- service functions – how their services are delivered to the community
- business relationships – such as with partners, government, or other community organisations.
Choose the right governance model
The type of governance model you choose is important. With the right model, your group is more able to carry out its activities and achieve its goals. It allows you to align your cultural values with legal requirements. It enables you to collectively achieve the things that matter most.
The model your group chooses has immediate implications and consequences for the future. For example, it can affect:
- what your group can do
- where you can operate
- how you integrate cultural ways of governing
- how easy it is to establish and operate
- what reporting you have to do
- how much external intervention there is
- your funding
- what costs you have to pay
- how easy it is to make changes to the model.
External conditions can influence what model you choose, and whether you need the flexibility to change your model in the future. For example, some funders do not allow auspicing arrangements. Some only give grants to incorporated groups or to groups with a tax deductible gift recipient (DGR) status, such as charities or not-for-profit organisations. It’s important that you can self-assess when your group’s model may need to change or get a ‘tune-up’.
When choosing your governance model, get advice from experts – such as lawyers and accountants. See tips on managing and maintaining relationships with experts.
“The governance structure [of Yarnteen Group] was seen as an important strategy to achieve the long-term objectives and economic self-sufficiency of the organisation. Our number one priority was to have a governance structure that was sensitive to and compatible with the culturally diversity [sic] and interests of our community, but importantly that offered stability and contributed to good governance rather than undermining it.”
– Leah Armstrong, presentation on ‘Financial management and business systems’, Building Effective Indigenous Governance Conference, 4–7 November 2003, Jabiru.
Fit for purpose
Having a clear purpose for your group makes it easier to choose the right governance model. This is the critical factor when deciding whether a proposed model is fit for purpose for your group. This means that it’s equipped to achieve your vision, purpose, activities and goals.
For more information on identifying your group’s purpose and vision, see Assess your purpose and vision.
There are many innovative ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups adapt, customise and combine governance models so they’re fit for purpose.
For example, you can see this in:
- groups that have a network of relationships and affiliations – or accommodate new members, communities and groups – to better align with their cultural values. For example, West Arnhem Regional Council or Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly.
- small local groups where the governance model reflects kin, family, or land ownership connections. For example, Thamarrurr Development Corporation Limited.
- peak bodies that service large regional networks of communities and groups, or represent a diverse mix of different types of organisations. For example, Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory.
- an alliance between several non-incorporated groups and an incorporated organisation – for example, where the incorporated organisation auspices the financial and administrative aspects of the group’s operations. For example, the Yiriman Project.
- a ‘parent’ or host organisation mentoring an emerging organisation. For example, Yarnteen Limited.
Even when you choose a governance model that fits your purpose, it may need adjusting. For example, when priorities change, or the external environment changes. It’s important to consider whether a model is flexible enough to make refinements and, if needed, major changes later.
Winners and finalists of the 2022 Indigenous Governance Awards share how their governance has grown and changed over time.
Integrating cultural legitimacy
Being fit for purpose also includes integrating cultural legitimacy into your model.
Cultural legitimacy is the idea that your governance model aligns with your group’s core values and cultural governance. These are identified by your organisation, community or nation. It’s about matching the rules by which things are being done and how your group believes things should be done.
For example, your group might choose to adopt a non-Indigenous model because it better supports your group’s governance objectives. Non-Indigenous governance principles can also be used effectively in both the traditional and contemporary governance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.
To learn more about placing culture at the heart of your governance, see cultural legitimacy.
The main aim is to develop a model that is effective and has the support of those being governed.1Stephen Cornell, “Economic development, governance, and what self-determination really means,” Native Title Newsletter, no. 6 (2010): 5-6.
Sam Jeffries, Chair of the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly talks about the emerging structure and governance model of the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly.
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
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