Chair's Report to the 2017 AGM

1st October 2017

During the AGM the acting chair of the Board of Directors reported on what the Board has been doing since the year since the last AGM. Please see the report below

Welcome to our AGM

As acting chair of the Board of Directors I have been asked to report on what the Board has been doing since the last AGM.

You may remember that that we initiated a system of rotating chair-persons to hold the fort while we sought a new permanent chair. Well, in the absence of any suitable candidates for the role on Board or Council we soon realized there were many matters to resolve before we could expect a new comer to lead us forward and we have had a series of rotating chairmen throughout the year

Whilst not ideal it has worked well enough. Alan Price, Charles Stanley Smith, John Sweeney Declan Murphy, Eamonn Moore and myself have all taken turns and a huge amount of work was able to proceed throughout that time.

In particular the Nominations Committee was able to bring on board three great new Board Directors. John Pierce, Chris Massi and Shane Bissett. Their profiles can be seen on the website but they come with great skills and experience in strategic planning, fund raising and property management.

They have all hit the ground running. John Pierce initiated and directed a project that includes all members (and a few outsiders) to consider whether An Taisce’s vision needs to be re-defined. A couple of workshops brought out many interesting ideas and a survey will soon be emailed to members to give people who couldn’t attend the opportunity to participate. Inevitably this will include a review of the role of educational programmes in An Taisce – a topic that has engaged the thoughts of many in the past few years and which may arise again today in the motions to be discussed later.

Chris Massi, an experienced fund raising consultant for many educational and medical institutions, is busy reviewing the options for a more stable income flow for the organization. Some of this is relates to membership development and of course that is closely related to the vision that emerges from our workshops and the mission that we develop to lead us towards our vision.

Some income flow can also be generated by the properties we hold in trust. The treasure that is The Tailors Hall is very expensive to maintain and was a major source of our financial woes last year. We are lucky that Shane Bissett joined us recently and is working closely with Ian Lumley to assess various options for The Tailors Hall and other properties. One option that looks promising is to upgrade our lower floor, to facilitate the development of a café opening onto the High Street, where the footfall has rapidly increased in the past few years.

A few years back we undertook work as an exemplar on how to make such an old building more energy efficient without damaging the integrity of the property. Now we can possibly show how alternative uses for protected structures can keep them alive and on show.

Meanwhile the Board continues to update An Taisce’s policies in line with the Governance Code. I’m not sure how many of you know about the governance code but it is a voluntary code that spells out in simple language what good governance looks like. I believe it will change the face of Ireland. It was put together by a number of voluntary organisations and is designed to guide NGOs of various sizes in a practical way. Obviously a very large organization with many staff and a large budget will need a different structure than a small voluntary organization mainly run by volunteers. In particular the size of the organization determines the structure of the Board. The Board of a small NGO may have an executive board, where its members are mainly active working members of the organization running projects for example. A larger organisation will need a non-executive Board, which decides strategic issues, leaving the implementation of those decisions to a paid Chief Executive Officer.

That’s one of the issues the Board is dealing with this year. An Taisce’s Board has always fallen somewhere in between those two positions. Without the financial resources to pay for a CEO and an office manager for Advocacy, Properties and Head Office, the Board resolved to employ an office manager to handle the administrative duties and to establish an Executive Committee to implement any strategic decisions of the Board that affect those three units. The Education Unit have their own CEO. Again, this is not ideal but it has worked pretty successfully for the past year.

Of course none of this was helped by the failure to find a new office manager when that position became vacant last Christmas. We thought we had someone then twice it fell through for different reasons. It has saved us some money but put a lot of pressure on the voluntary board members who have stepped up to the plate in a remarkable way.

Our much loved natural environment officer, Fintan Kelly also left this year leaving a huge gap in the Advocacy Unit and putting extra pressure on our wonderful planning officer. Doreann Ni has great skill and experience to handle much of our prescribed function, commenting on hundreds of planning applications for developments that may affect the built and natural environment.

She handles this in a highly competent and obliging manner, also dealing with many requests for help from members and non-members alike with the assistance of Ian Lumley. Ian has now taken on the role as an entirely voluntary Advocacy Officer, managing this department in line with agreed terms of reference. Many of you will have experience of Doireann’s helpful nature and wise response to queries so you will know what I mean. Her experience has also allowed Ian to take a more strategic role, dealing with those tricky issues that need the holistic experience that has been developed by An Taisce –incidentally, the only NGO that is in a position to do that with its current multiplicity of missions covering planning, properties and programmes.

Ian’s participation in many high level workshops and boards is much appreciated by the government and other organisations for the wealth of experience he can bring with him to the table.

Many other organisations take on single issues and do so very well but it is An Taisce’s holistic vision that is so valuable as in reality all environmental issues are totally entwined and are dis-integrated to our peril.

Many of our local associations are struggling, mainly because most people find it easier to deal with single issues rather than the big picture, but we do still have representation in the 12 remaining branches, which can bring a depth of local knowledge, which is shared at Council meetings when we are not discussing organizational matters.

And ideas are emerging from the vision and mission workshops of how we can better engage our members. New Committees are being established and old committees renewed. So for example the Climate Committee grows from strength to strength benefitting from the inclusion of academics and experts in their field as well as general members. We continue to be proud of our past President and the wise words we now frequently hear from Prof John Sweeney on national media and I consider it a huge success that John Gibbons and the committee succeeded in getting the publishers Folens to distribute an addendum to a text book distributed to all school children: the text has been corrected to give climate change its rightful place in a geography text book.

The Natural Environment Committee continues as always under the competent chairmanship of Declan Murphy but the Built Environment Committee is still floundering. There is a suggestion to amalgamate the two committees under the banner of ‘Advocacy’.

We are now in a position to re-establish the Properties Committee with the leadership of Shane Bissett and I would encourage members to consider where they feel they might be able to contribute to the cause.

Several Dublin members have volunteered to help maintain the gardens and a couple in particular have done great work keeping down the weeds which continue to grow apace in between the cobbles and beginning to redevelop the borders. We can always do with more help there.

Once we get a new office manager we hope to bring in members to help around the office, maybe scanning old documents, maybe helping with the membership data base. There are plenty of routine jobs to be done once we can organise their management and so far most helpers we’ve had love to get involved.

And with the new Board there are ambitions to develop further committees: to organise fund raising and membership development programme events, not least to celebrate both the 80 th anniversary of the An Taisce’s foundation and the 800th anniversary of the license granted to the Tailors by Henry 4th.

I would implore members to look at notices that appear by email during the year asking for volunteers to help with this work. If you can’t help us maybe your kids can? We know the young ones like to be active. Unfortunately it has to be by email as the post is extraordinarily expensive and out of reach for us now.

There have even been suggestions from members that notice for the AGM should also be by email both to save money and to save on waste. Its an idea that will have to be discussed one day ..but not today! There are more pressing questions to answer today.

Judy Osborne