“Culturally-Matched” Governance Makes Indigenous Organisations More Resilient

“Culturally-Matched” Governance Makes Indigenous Organisations More Resilient

OTS Management has summarised our 35-year experience in working with Indigenous organisations and recorded our observations about how Indigenous organisations become resilient and prepared a free Whitepaper called The Building Blocks of Organisational Resilience.

It will be no surprise that we have identified governance as one of those building blocks.

However, we have also identified that the type of governance model implemented cannot be only focused on the governance processes legislated in various corporation Acts. While incorporated organisations must follow and not be in breach of legislated governance responsibilities, strong resilient organisations have found a way to incorporate "cultural match" in their governance processes.

In the context of Indigenous organisations, Governance is both about how the Board of Directors work, as well as about how the organisation is governed in a holistic sense.

“How the organisation is governed” involves decision-making transparency and how that involves a larger group to maintain legitimacy, as well as the overall model of whether the Board really represents the members.

In weak organisations, the tail can wag the dog and the Board sign off on management initiatives without due care or diligence. In other weak organisations, the Board may attempt to practice governance, but instead of setting a strategy, they get management to do it for them because "that's what they are paid to do."

In strong organisations, the Board truly represents the members without merely acceding to what the loud majority demand. They are not afraid to try to bend community demands to what they have considered and discussed as the better and more legitimate way for the organisation to benefit the members.

In this way, strong organisations find a way to collaboratively work bottom-up and top-down at the same time.

The other aspect of good governance is the working of the Board of Directors.

Strong organisations understand the principle of governance as opposed to operational management. While the natural concern for “their” organisation is paramount, they have found a balance of remaining involved and influential without taking over or forcing operational design.

The Directors of strong organisations work through the Board structure via the Chairperson or appropriate committees to provide management with strategic direction and guidance. In this way, management is provided with clear guidance - even instruction - about what is “right” or “wrong”, but management are still responsible to implement operational details.

In our opinion, gained from seeing how strong Indigenous organisations work, resilient organisations display the following characteristics:

1  Their governance model blends traditional and culturally appropriate methods of governance, consensus and decision-making, with governance requirements of corporate legislation.

There is no “one-size fits all” template that can be imposed. The Board made up of people with specific local customs and traditions, must find what is right for them to use their Elders, cultural relationships, and protocols and responsibilities in the way they work within Gardiya law.

In 2003 Professor Mick Dodson co-authored a paper called “Governance for sustainable development: Strategic issues and principles for Indigenous Australian communities” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237134933_Governance_for_sustainable_development_Strategic_issues_and_principles_for_Indigenous_Australian_communities) where he describes the need to ensure a cultural “match” or cultural “fit” that is required to address mandate and legitimacy and take account of local culturally-based values and practices.

2  Resilient organisations have found consensus around the issues of who holds power and how that power is exercised, and how the rights and responsibilities of different members and leaders are respected.

This provides legitimacy and mandate about representative structures such as the Board of Directors.

All too often, the composition of, and the way the Directors are elected is a construction of legal experts experienced in corporate law, but not in cultural values and systems. All too often the Rule Books of corporations incorporated under the Corporations (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander) Act are taken straight from templates.

These templates were established only as guidelines but in the haste of incorporation, insufficient time or attention were spent in seeing how the legalistic paragraphs “matched” local cultural representational and decision-making standards.

Another Aboriginal leader we have often worked with, Professor Peter Yu (Vice President First Nations, ANU) has described this dilemma:

“The challenge to develop Indigenous governance structures is daunting…existing governance structures do not relate to the cultural integrity of the community. They exist for the requirements of government accountability systems and the management of largesse. They are not Aboriginal structures.” (Aboriginal Rights and Governance – A Kimberley Perspective, 2002, P Yu)

If care and time are taken, a legitimate mandate allows strong organisations to develop structures around their Boards such as sub-committees and cultural reference groups to help corporate strategy and decisions.

3  The Directors have developed a dispute resolution and disagreement process that is agreed as fair and can be consistently relied upon to deal with disputes and disagreements amongst Directors and between the Board and staff and the Board and members.

Sometimes, but not always, this is embodied in “charters” or “memoranda of understanding” or policies and procedures.

The key feature is that the process is known, and it is seen to be fair by consensus so that where there may be instances of an aggrieved party continuing to feel aggrieved, the weight of consensus helps to stop it getting out of hand.

4  As already stated above, strong organisations work through the Board structure to ensure the limitation and separation of powers, to separate the responsibilities of governing, from those of operational management.

While aware of how the management is performing, the Boards of strong organisations act as stewards of the corporation providing strategy and guidance, while also instilling the discipline of performance when required – “eyes in, fingers out.”

5  Strong governance structures allow the development of effective financial management and administrative systems.

In weaker organisations, these functions are “left to staff.”

Being untrained and feeling that they pay high salaries to management, the Directors may be tempted or "shamed" to abrogate their responsibilities to keep “eyes in.” All too often in times of crisis, we hear the premise that “we paid you to do that, so what’s gone wrong?”

Resilient Boards ask for and are provided with information and explanation, sufficient to ensure understand their financial and organisational performance. They will know when management staff are inadequate or are “hiding” something from them.

6  Strong, resilient organisations’ governance models create, evaluate and frequently review strategic issues and policies.

Regular strategic plans are prepared with the full participation of the Board and realistic strategies are handed over to management to prepare the annual business and operational plans that operationalise the long-term strategies.

The Board also provide clear strategic policies so that management and staff are clear about the parameters of the organisation’s work – what is “in” and what is “out”.


Organisations that successfully build their effective and culturally-matched governance protocols grow into resilient organisations that can withstand crises, and bounce back quickly to continue providing effective services and programs for their members.

Resilient organisations will review their own governance performance (as far as possible checking on member or community opinions to gauge continuing legitimacy and mandates) as well as review the continuing “cultural match” that is being applied.

All this takes time, but it is an investment in resilience.

If you would like to know more about the Building Blocks of Organisational Resilience, you can obtain a free copy of our Whitepaper here.

If you would like to know more about how we can help you review and improve your governance model, please email Teik at or call 08 9242 2085.

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