In recent years, increasing regulatory obligations and community expectations across the not-for-profit (NFP) sector have served to elevate the importance of boards listening to the voices of the communities they serve. The AICD has developed a short resource on how to elevate the client voice, as part of the recently revised Not-for-Profit Governance Principles.

    In our new resource, we unpack why boards should elevate the client voice into their board decision-making and governance structures and examine the following:

    • Why is elevating the client voice important for boards?
    • What are the benefits?
    • Examples of client voices in other sectors
    • “Promising practices” arising out of the Disability Royal Commission
    • Key mechanisms to elevate the client voice

    Why is elevating the client voice important for boards?

    Various industries already have requirements to consult with clients such aged care and health care. Legislative reforms resulting from the Aged Care Royal Commission now require aged care providers to consider feedback from consumer advisory bodies in board decision-making, whilst the Disability Royal Commission recommended disability service providers consider recruiting people with disability as board directors. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also led to the development of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations which is aimed at embedding the rights of children and young people to be protected, respected and listened to.

    What are the benefits of elevating the client voice?

    There are governance benefits to elevating the client voice such as alignment with purpose, vision and strategy, improved reputation and community trust and more informed and effective decision-making. Boards that have deeper access to client insights help to identify emerging risks and develop strategies for proactive mitigation, rather than reactive remediation in the future.

    Regardless of whether boards recruit people with lived experience, it is important that boards consider the risks of failing to meaningfully elevate client voices on decisions affecting clients/customers, including decisions about how programs and services are provided to them.

    Elevating stakeholder voices to the board – examples of client voices in other sectors

    In 2021, the AICD released its guide Elevating stakeholder voices to the board: A guide to effective governance to help directors identify and elevate key stakeholder voices to the board. This resource highlights several examples of the client (or customer) voice being elevated to the board level across different industries such as energy and health care.

    In the energy sector, the Energy Charter, a national CEO-led collaboration that supports the energy sector towards a customer-centric future, produced a Customer Voice @ Board Toolkit that incorporates better practice options for energy businesses. This includes a review of customer complaints by management/board and board involvement in Customer Advisory Councils to gain customer insights and influence on a diverse range of business decisions.

    In the healthcare sector, there are examples of boards commencing their board meetings with a client story or a client appearing before the board to share their experience with the organisation. This aims to keep the board focused on patients/clients and reminds directors of their organisation’s impact. 

    Governing for quality aged care

    Recent aged care governance reforms have also introduced requirements for providers to offer consumers and their representatives the establishment of one or more consumer advisory bodies.

    In December 2023, the AICD released guidance for aged care directors which will also be instructive for directors in other care sectors that provide programs and services for clients, such as disability. We encourage boards to actively engage clients to ensure clients play an active role in various aspects of service delivery, from service planning to policy development, advocacy, strategic planning, training and quality improvement.

    Promising practices arising out of Disability Royal Commission

    In last year’s Disability Royal Commission final report, the Commissioners observed several “promising practices” that emerged through their four-and-a-half year long inquiry. This includes service providers reviewing whether their boards and leadership structures have a meaningful level of representation of people with disability and recruiting people with disability as board directors, leaders, managers and advisors.[1] Peak body National Disability Services agreed that authentic involvement of people with disability at every level of disability service provider governance is one mechanism to ensure boards are accountable for service quality.

    Outside the boardroom, the Commissioners also highlighted the promising practice of providing regular training and development activities across the life of a board director’s appointment, including visiting services and meeting with service recipients and staff.

    Key mechanisms to elevate the client voice

    In the AICD’s recently updated Not-for-Profit Governance Principles, we outlined several mechanisms to practically elevate the client voice:  

    Board composition – Recruiting board directors with lived experience is the most direct mechanism to ensure the client perspective is heard around the boardroom, subject to an organisation’s constitution and other governance requirements. For example, the constitution of ACON, a leading HIV prevention organisation, seeks to ensure at least one director with lived experience.

    Board observership programs

    Over the past decade, board observership programs have increased in prominence in Australia as a way to provide observers with first-hand exposure to the complexity of governing an NFP board, whilst building governance skills. As a Strategic Partner of the Observership Program, the AICD delivers a training program to help participants upskill on the foundations of good governance.

    Board meetings – The structure and facilitation of board meetings are key to ensuring the client voice is elevated to add practical utility from the frontline service users’ perspective. For example, the board agenda may have a standing item on ‘client issues’. The board chair also has the critical role of managing board dynamics and facilitating discussion to enable directors with lived experience to contribute meaningfully. The board may consider alternating board meetings in different locations to understand local client issues and hear the voices of local people when undertaking board discussions.

    Risk and strategy – Boards should consider the role of the client voice through a risk lens to ensure that appropriate governance, metrics and measures are in place. For example, boards may need to amend their risk appetite statement to reflect client feedback on certain risk tolerances (e.g. dignity of risk). Elevating the client voice into board decision-making can also support a more effective strategy, that builds long term impact, consistent with the NFP’s purpose. For example, integrating feedback from the client/consumer advisory committee on a draft strategic plan.

    Stakeholder engagement – Meaningful stakeholder engagement with clients and their representatives helps to demonstrate that the board is genuine about elevating client voices within its decision-making. For example, individual directors should take opportunities to proactively engage with clients in a range of settings, whether through site visits, sitting in or taking client calls, assisting staff with service or program delivery, or collaborating with clients on a major fundraising campaign. Boards should also consider the client voice collectively through engagement with peak bodies and advocacy groups representing people with lived experience.

    Questions for directors

    • Has the board considered recruiting directors with lived experience to reflect the diversity of the client base?
    • Does the existing board committee structure allow for an appropriate focus on clients?
    • Do the Annual Report and other corporate reports demonstrate how client needs are considered in strategic decision-making?
    • How is client risk considered within the risk appetite statement?
    • What assurance activities are undertaken to ensure client risk is being effectively managed?
    • What opportunities already exist for the board to engage with clients or their representatives? Does the organisation actively seek feedback from former clients?
    • Does the board gain client insights from employees and volunteers formally and informally?

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