It’s important to be open to different ideas – to see what works best in your circumstances Experiment with ways of developing solutions that are culturally legitimate, as well as practically effective It’s...
- Understand Indigenous governance
- Your culture
- Assess your governance
- Build your governance
- Your people
- Systems and plans
- Conflict resolution and peacemaking
- Governance Stories
- Useful links
How to get started
Governance gives an organisation, community or nation the ways and means to achieve the things that matter to them. But knowing where to start can be overwhelming. We explore what to consider before you start, and go through the steps to take to build your governance.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What resources does your group already have to help you get started?
- What additional resources, skills, support do you need? Where might you get them from?
- What does your group want to achieve?
What to consider before you start
The process of building governance involves time and effort.
To get started, consider the shared history of your group, purpose and values, authority to proceed and resources to do the job.
There are common attributes that can help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups get started. Reflect on these before you start. It will help you build your governance in a way that works for your group.
– Adapted from Organising Aboriginal Governance: Pathways to Self-Determined Success in the Northern Territory (2015) by Dr Diane Smith.
Strong leadership and teamwork
Identify a core group of local First Nations people who want to get something happening and are willing to lead the way. Look for the people in your organisation, community or nation who can lead you in new situations. The people who can take responsibility for making decisions and building your governance. Make sure your young leaders have a role.
Find people with a shared commitment and time to do the hard work. Embrace initial mistakes, learn from them and stay flexible. No-one gets it right the first time. Keep your initial arrangements flexible so you can experiment. Remember, no-one has ever achieved ‘perfect governance’.
Purple House CEO Sarah Brown and Board Director Marlene Spencer talk about getting their organisation started. They explain why it was so important for Pintupi people to start their own service. Purple House was started using funds raised from Pintupi people’s paintings. The Art Gallery of NSW auctioned the paintings and raised over $1 million dollars.
Purple House’s approach in the early days was to take things slowly. They trialled their approach and services for the first 3 years before deciding to incorporate. This meant they were able to build strong local control in the early establishment phase. They also built confidence in their own approach to governance and service delivery.
Clear future vision
Develop a strong future vision within the group of what they want to do, where they want to head and why. Talk through your governance history. Go back to the beginning and explore where your governance arrangements came from. Talk about where they are now (what works, what doesn’t and why), and where they want to go. Organisations, communities and nations that do this tend to have the best start and keep working hard.
See Assess your vision and purpose to help define your purpose and vision.
Focus on developing relationships and connections that support the basis of your group’s structure. Governance is learned by doing. Making changes to governance is best done ‘on the job’ as part of your daily work and living together. That means changes must be about real things with real consequences for people. Working together to learn and to get things done instils a strong commitment to governance deep within your organisation, community or nation.
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here Director of Operations and Communications Jody Currie and CEO Adrian Carson explains how the IUIH came together to create a regional solution to common goals, and some of the challenges that arose during this process.
Start an ongoing conversation in the group about governance ideas and options. Start winning support from the wider community. Start with what matters to your people. Governance is about relationships, so include your people in the process from the start. Find out what matters to them about their governance. Discuss their concerns and ideas, and what they think they can do about it. Help them understand why there’s a need for change. Talk together about the issues and keep the conversation going.
The Muntjiltjarra Wurrgumu Group (MWG) was awarded Highly Commended Category B in the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. MWG members Regina Ashwin and Stacey Petterson outline how the MWG came together as a representative group for the Wiluna Regional Partnership Agreement. To understand what was important from a local perspective, the group conducted a survey.
Negotiation and mediation skills
Develop some good negotiation and mediation skills. Use them to help settle differences of opinion and vested interests. Be honest. You may have inherited challenges due to outside forces beyond your control. It is now within your power to resolve them. Identify the internal difficulties and make a plan to create change. Internally generated change is often more sustainable than change imposed from the outside.
Knowing your community strengths and assets
Get a clear idea of the group’s strengths, assets and expertise and build on them. Strong governance is built on knowing what you’ve got and using it well. Everyone in your group has skills, abilities, knowledge and experience you can draw on. Use them to strengthen your governance and reinforce a shared commitment to rebuilding.
See Map your assets to help identify your assets.
Gather information about what solutions and arrangements work well for other groups. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to. You can adapt practical solutions already discovered by others to save yourself time.
Planning, time and persistence
Have realistic goals that people feel they can do something about. Be strategic. You cannot do everything at once, but you can start somewhere. Sometimes it’s best if the first steps are small and incremental. Create an initial plan that allows people to experiment and make mistakes. The point is to prioritise your problems before you begin. Start with the things you know you can change. It’s difficult to change things outside your immediate control.
Strong networks, partnerships and alliances
Develop good contacts with external agencies and people with expertise. This allows your group to get the most support. Stay connected with people who are trying different solutions. Seek expertise or extra training, but make sure you stay in control of the direction you want to take.
A good sense of humour!
Someone must lead the way, but you must also keep your members with you on the journey. The process may challenge existing ideas in your own community and in your external environment. Be inclusive and keep as many people as possible involved in the process.
The most successful approaches to building governance are ones that:
- become part of the daily routine
- build on existing strengths and knowledge
- relate to specific conditions and local problems
- are carried out ‘on the job’ or in the local context, so that understanding is embedded within practice
- identify culturally legitimate solutions for governance development1Bauman, T., Smith, D.E., Keller, C., Drieberg, L. and R. Quiggan. 2015. Indigenous Governance Building: Mapping Current and Future Research and Practical Resource Needs, Report of Workshop convened by AIATSIS and AIGI, Canberra July 2014, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra and the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, Sydney.
- prioritise time and flexibility. Look at what works best for your group and experiment with ways of developing solutions. The solutions should be culturally credible as well as practically effective.
- evaluate what works well and what can be improved.2Bauman, T., Smith, D.E., Keller, C., Drieberg, L. and R. Quiggan. 2015. Indigenous Governance Building: Mapping Current and Future Research and Practical Resource Needs, Report of Workshop convened by AIATSIS and AIGI, Canberra July 2014, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra and the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, Sydney.
Check out this useful guide on starting and running your community organisation (PDF 375kB) by the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA).
Steps to build your governance
The following are the steps to take to build your governance.
1. Assess your current governance status
Evaluate the history of your group, and what has brought you to this point. Evaluate what has worked well and what areas can be strengthened.
Find out more about assessing your governance in Assess your governance.
2. Identify your purpose
Define your group’s purpose and what you’re trying to achieve. Your purpose is different from a mission statement. It’s a description of what you dream to do.
Having a clear purpose makes it easier to determine your governance model.
NPY Women’s Council chairperson Yanyi Bandicha and co-ordinator Andrea Mason talk about NPY Women’s Council’s purpose, how they got started and how they’re governed.
3. Choose your governance model
There are many types of governance models. They can be centralised or networked across large areas. They can be auspiced or self-sufficient. Some involve legal incorporation under government legislation. Others are more informal, for example based on relationship and cultural lines.
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.
Read more about choosing your governance model.
4. Decide whether to incorporate
Incorporation is when you register your organisation with the government.
When an organisation becomes incorporated, it becomes a separate legal entity. This means it has its own legal rights and responsibilities.
There are benefits to becoming incorporated. There are also requirements you must comply with. For example, reporting to the regulator and conducting meetings.
Whether to incorporate or not is one of the biggest decisions to make. The decision has significant consequences for your group. For example, some government agencies and private sector companies only provide funding to incorporated organisations. This means your group must incorporate to get money for programs, services or agreement monies.
Some groups decide to remain unincorporated. Others have auspicing arrangements. Some register as a charity. The right option for your group depends on its purpose.
Read more about deciding whether to incorporate.
5. Choose a name
Your group needs a name. It will need a name whether it’s incorporated or informal.
If you’re planning to incorporate, there may be requirements or restrictions on the name you can choose. For example, under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act), your business name must include certain words or combinations of words, such as ‘Aboriginal Corporation’, ‘Torres Strait Islander Corporation’ or ‘Indigenous Corporation’.
You may also need to consider whether your name is already being used. Check the following to do this:
- Australian Securities and Investments Corporation (ASIC). Search their Business names register.
- Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC). Use the Find a corporation (Public Register) on the homepage.
These searches identify names of businesses registered with each regulator.
You can register your group’s name (and logo, if you have one) as a trademark. You should do this if your name is unique or important to the brand of goods and services your group provides. This protects the intellectual property rights in the name.
Read more about intellectual property on IP Australia’s website.
6. Develop your rules or constitution
Having rules (or a constitution) is critical to effective governance.
When rules are strong, and everyone follows them, groups are more effective and better able to exercise self-determination.
It’s helpful to keep a written document about how you govern your group. This can help to keep your culture at the heart of your group and maintain cultural legitimacy.
For incorporated organisations, it’s a legal requirement to keep a written document.
Read more about developing your rules and constitution.
7. Raise funds to finance your organisation
Consider how your organisation, community or nation will be funded. Often funding is provided through a combination of equity and debt. You may also get funding or grants through government initiatives or philanthropic programs.
Consider how much it’s going to cost to start up and run your group. Your estimated costs depend on the activities your group carries out. They could include:
- capital infrastructure
- meeting or office space
- people’s time, skills and work
- legal advice
- administration services and systems
- travel costs.
The Australian Government’s Business website has a free calculator to help you calculate your start-up costs.
You may need an accountant or bookkeeper. They can help you keep on top of your group’s finances, including any taxes you need to pay. Moneysmart have some useful information on everyday financial management and how to work out how much money you will need.
When considering funding, it’s important to understand the obligations, risks and opportunities of the type of funding. Read all the terms and conditions and consider getting professional advice.
There are many ways to generate funds, for example:
There are different streams of funding available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, and not-for-profit organisations. These include government funding and philanthropic funding to help organisations that develop community wellbeing. You can apply for grants yourself or get a professional grant writer to help you.
Earned income or a fee-for-service
Earned income, or fee-for-service, is when your group sells a service or a product.
Some smaller Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations choose to partner with larger organisations in what is known as an auspicing arrangement. An auspicing arrangement, allows a larger more established organisation (the auspicor) to help manage finances. For example, the auspicor receives and manages grant monies on behalf of the smaller group (the auspicee).
For detailed information on auspicing, see Justice Connect’s Auspicing Guide.
Charities and not-for-profits
Charities and not-for-profits are a type of business structure that can have benefits for funding opportunities. Read more about charities and not-for-profits.
Diversification is an investment strategy used to manage your group’s financial risks. It spreads your group’s money across different assets.
8. Establish operational systems
Developing systems and processes helps your governance run more smoothly. It’s useful to consider:
How will you organise your documentation and record-keeping? For example, through a document management system or database? Starting a contacts database is also a good idea.
How will you manage your finances? You may need to consider things like developing budgets, setting up bank accounts, getting a tax file number, having delegations approved by the board for certain expenditure.
Where will your organisation be located? Do you need an office space? If you’re running a more informal organisation, you might be able to meet or work in free spaces, like libraries.
Do you need to recruit staff? What human resources policies and procedures do you need to put in place?
A lot is done using computers and the internet these days. You might need to think about IT supplies, IT support, internet access and cyber security. You can outsource many of these services to consultants while you’re building your organisation.
Do you need to protect some of your cultural or business information or ideas? For example, your business name, logo or key products. They may be commercially valuable and could be used by someone else if not protected. To find out more about how to protect your ideas, or what considerations you should have regarding intellectual property, see IP Australia.
Many organisations need specific insurances. Make sure you check what requirements apply to your organisation. If you are unsure seek advice.
The Australian Government’s Business website has information about the types of business insurance you might need.
Reporting and compliance
If your organisation is incorporated, you must report on certain matters to the regulator. In Australia, there are also many laws you need to comply with. For example, in relation to:
- workplace health and safety
- employment and anti-discrimination laws
- records and reporting
If you’re unsure what your obligations are, speak to your relevant regulator (ORIC or ASIC) or seek advice from professionals, such as lawyers or accountants.
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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