Background

A key impetus for a combined women’s service in Mackay was a discussion paper by Eunice Donovan, Coordinator of the Domestic Violence Resource Service (Mackay & Region), which was distributed to every women’s service in Mackay in 2000 (Donovan, 2000). It was developed in response to several major issues impacting on the community sector, particularly women-specific services. Donovan considered three possible collaboration and governance models for the proposed service, concluding that full amalgamation would offer
the most advantages. However, she noted that this would be ‘extremely difficult to set up – the legal arrangements, negotiation with funding bodies, and personal and organisational costs might be prohibitive’ (Donovan, 2000, p.6).

Based on this idea, the vision developed was to create one organisation known as the Mackay Women’s Centre and to co-locate the relevant women’s services in one central building. The aim was to create a holistic service, underpinned by a feminist philosophy, which would offer a range of improved services for women and children, including:

  • health promotion and community awareness campaigns;
  • early intervention programs;
  • crisis services such as domestic violence counselling; and
  • pregnancy help.

Developing the collaborative and governance arrangements

The three agencies involved in the Mackay Pilot Project have been working towards their amalgamation into an incorporated body for seven years. While this seems like a very long timeframe, ‘this project is the first of its kind in Queensland, and is both pioneering and difficult’ (Donovan, 2005, p.1). An initial workshop was held in 2001 which involved representatives of the three organisations that planned to amalgamate:

  • The Domestic Violence Resource Service, the largest of the three organisations which provides a wide range of support, information, counselling and training services to people affected by domestic and family violence, professionals, community service workers and the general community.
  • The Mackay Women’s Health and Information Centre, a relatively small organisation which provides health-related support, information and resources to women, families and others in the community.
  • Pregnancy Help, the smallest of the three organisations which provides support and counselling to women with pregnancy concerns and issues.

All three organisations had issues related to accommodation and increased costs which were the key catalyst for action.

An interim management committee was formed in 2002 which included representatives of the three services, as well as the Mackay District Health Services and the Department of Communities. The interim management committee consisted of two representatives from each of the three organisation’s management committees. The representatives were seen by the women’s sector as being strategic leaders, with a high level of passion for strengthening services for women. Representatives of the Department of Communities and Mackay District Health Service had the role of ex-officio members while a local community development organisation took the role of sponsor and independent external member. A partnership agreement was signed and terms of reference for the interim management committee were developed and reviewed each year.

In the early stages, a social work student provided support to the management committee at no cost. Later, a project worker was employed to undertake project development tasks through funding from the Gaming Community Benefit Fund from May to October 2004.

In late 2004 and early 2005 a number of conflicts and communication issues emerged among the partner organisations that brought work on the project to a standstill. Some of the factors involved here included problems in sustaining the volunteer effort over several years, insufficient funding to support the project and obtain access to expertise such as legal and financial knowledge, and the difficulty of ‘balancing the physical and the philosophical’ (Donovan, 2005). This latter factor was related to the pressure to ‘prioritise the search for a suitable physical location for the ‘combined women’s service’ (Donovan, 2005).

In late 2005, the three agencies involved in developing the Mackay Women’s Centre were invited to be part of the MTSC Pilots Project. A business case for the establishment of the Centre was submitted to the Department of Communities in July 2006. This put forward a
strong case for the Centre and the benefits that were anticipated from the amalgamation and co-location of the three organisations. A suitable building was identified and negotiations with the building owners and current lease holders began. However, this process became very protracted and greatly affected the project implementation timeframe.

A consultant was employed through a small grant to develop a comprehensive Policy and Procedure Manual. A constitution, terms of reference, and a statement of partnership were revisited and refined in readiness for the incorporation of the Mackay Women’s Centre.
The business case proposed that the Centre would be managed by a volunteer management committee which would be appointed at the inaugural general meeting, scheduled for late July 2006. An over arching management model was developed comprising one committee with a management team consisting of senior staff from each service stream under this committee.

The Mackay Women’s Centre Management Committee, in consultation with the partner organisations, began investigating variations to this model in light of advice from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), which raised a number of issues related to tax exemptions and concessions. Possible options identified to address these issues included:

  • Rework the constitution to meet the ATO requirements.
  • Seek expert legal opinion through the Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH).
  • Seek expert accountancy advice regarding other possible models of salary packaging entitlements.
  • Explore other sources of funding.
  • Pregnancy Help and Mackay Women’s Health and Information Centre could amalgamate under the Mackay Women’s Centre in the first instance.
  • Only proceed with co-location.

The Mackay Women’s Centre is awaiting pro bono legal advice through QPILCH. In addition, the Centre has sought expert accountancy advice about the cost of maintaining financial entitlements available under salary sacrifice arrangements.

Challenges and issues

  • Lack of focus on the ‘big picture’ and fear of take over. Facilitation of the initial workshop in 2001 needed to have been more inclusive and ‘egalitarian’. This led to some workshop participants interpreting the process as ‘empire building’ by the largest agency rather than focussing on ‘the big picture of holistic women’s services’, which got lost due to the misperceptions that were created.
  • Taxation problems. Inconsistent or incorrect advice about the Centre’s tax status was provided over a number of years. Committee members also discovered that Federal tax laws over-ride or do not match Queensland legislation on amalgamation. This caused frustration, derailed the process, and significantly increased the timeframe for establishing the Centre.
  • Strained relationships and staff uncertainty. In early 2006, relationships between the organisations became strained, and a lack of trust developed between staff, the management committees for the three services, and the interim management committee. This was highlighted at a transition planning meeting. Staff indicated that they felt uncertain about their jobs and what the new organisation would look like. This prompted a review of communication strategies to strengthen the information provided to all members of the organisations and their staff. In addition, emphasis was placed on the need for committee representatives to take a greater leadership in future transition activities to demonstrate commitment to staff.
  • Building options and lengthy negotiations. There was a lengthy negotiation process with the owners of the proposed facility and gaining building assessments and plans took a long time. Uncertainties around the site emerged. This was a direct impact of the economic growth experienced by the region as a result of the mining boom. This growth meant that the cost of commercial properties rose significantly and resulted in the lack of available and suitable options for the combined organisation.
  • Sustaining energy and enthusiasm and loss of leadership. The lengthy and complex development process at times exhausted and frustrated volunteer management committee members who balanced paid work, volunteer committee work, and family responsibilities. Sustaining energy, enthusiasm, and involvement was a challenge. Some committee members with valuable experience and knowledge of the history of the project left part-way through the process for a range of reasons. This resulted in the need to plan for succession and develop strategies for managing ongoing change through a lengthy process.

Strategies used to address the challenges and issues included:

  • Conducting a visioning workshop in 2006. This was seen as a ‘healing process’ which helped to redress the problems and concerns that had emerged, rebuild trust, and increase commitment to the project. All of the organisations involved re-committed to the vision and the process, and project planning was put back on track. However, one committee member noted that ‘some people do not do visioning as well as others’.
  • One organisation held a workshop on feminist practice in 2007 which helped to develop a further shared understanding of what the Women’s Centre would look like in practice.
  • A feedback – consensus model of decision making was established from the outset of the process: This involved going back to the partner organisations for feedback prior to putting issues to a vote in meetings of the interim management committee. Forming sub-committees to work on particular areas of development such as human resources, finance and publicity. This distributed the workload more evenly. Results of this work were returned to the management committee at each stage of the process.
  • Developing a communication strategy. This created a better feedback loop between staff and the management committees for their organisation. Management of the services also communicated more frequently with staff about the planning and development process.
  • Obtaining ‘invaluable’ and ‘remarkable’ support, capacity building and commitment from local staff in the Department of Communities.
  • Obtaining pro bono legal advice through QPILCH.
  • Writing to the Institute for Chartered Accountants in Mackay to seek their help and support. As a result, the committee gained a new Treasurer who has provided excellent input and expertise in a voluntary capacity since mid 2006.
  • Rejuvenating the committee through bringing new members on board who had no preconceived ideas and understood the vision from the beginning. They ‘infused new blood into the committee’, provided a lot of energy, and ‘increased goodwill’.

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