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Roger Palairet and Linn Araboglos of the Wellington Community Trust reflect on the challenges of 2020. For Roger (Chair) and Linn (Chief Executive), 2020 was 'a year like no other' for their trust. We asked them to reflect on their experience.

When you think back to what was happening twelve months ago, would you have thought you and the trust would be where you are today?

We believed we would get to this place we are now; however, not so quickly. Last year was a year like no other. We had a new chief executive starting during the national lockdown in April 2020; an operational team where three of the five members had been in the role less than 4 months; communities facing huge uncertainty about the impact of COVID-19; and the Wellington Community Trust (WCT) Board was facing huge uncertainty about the impact of the economic downturn on our investment income. This in turn resulted in big decisions about a change in our distributions and how we wanted to respond to community need.

In many ways COVID-19 acted as a catalyst for positive changes within WCT. It highlighted strengths we had as an organisation and helped to identify some gaps too. We responded to community with simplified application processes, quicker turnaround on funding decisions, increased flexibility about funding what was needed at the time, developed a new strategy with evidence-based information about which communities within our region most needed our funding support. The urgent nature of our response to community need, accelerated our trajectory towards funding with an equity lens; and the Board was enabled to have more focused, strategic discussions - resulting in decisions being made more efficiently.

What have you learnt about your board and its governance journey over this time?

We have a diverse board of 10 individuals bringing different expertise and knowledge to the governance table. Over the last 12 months the trustees have increasingly come together with a shared vision and direction for WCT. There is, however, still diversity of thought and views regarding the strategy of WCT, as well as a strong sense of alignment of values.

As a relatively small funder, we don’t have the luxury of $25m to distribute each year so we need to prioritise and target our granting. Strong operational leadership supports the Board to be able to get on with the role of governing and focusing on strategic issues.

What have you each learnt about yourselves personally?

As Chair and CE we work well together. There is respect, trust and clarity around the different roles we have within WCT. It helps that we are both aligned in our thinking when it comes to the purpose and ambitions of the Trust.

What have you learnt about the communities you serve over this time?

Community need is ever present. Through our research and engagement, we have identified communities within our region with the greatest need and who will most benefit from our funding. We are also learning that more relational engagement is key to understanding the aspirations and needs within our community.

Sometimes the barriers to supporting community need are institutional, within our own processes and structures; we can make, and have made, changes to address this. In our experience community organisations are innovative and responsive to emerging need but are often under-resourced -particularly when it comes to operational costs associated with delivering services to community. This is one of the reasons why we continue to make grants which contribute to salaries, rent, and general operating costs.

With the benefit of hindsight what has been the biggest surprise for you over the last year?

We can just do things to improve the way we serve communities in our region. We can stop what’s not working and change things to make them work better. We can challenge the traditional approach of funding processes and improve the way we respond to communities.

We have been surprised by the really positive support and response from the community to our new much more targeted strategy, including those organisations who we funded previously and are now ineligible.

Anything else you think useful?

As a small funder there is a limit to the level of outcome/impact we can expect from our grants – and this highlights the importance of us being more innovative and funding things like advocacy work that can help make more impactful positive outcomes for communities – such as with our Climate Action Fund.

Good data and evidence are critical, as is seeking qualitative feedback from people working in communities of interest. Trust your community, listen to them, and capture only data that you will use and that ties directly back to your strategic ambitions.