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Apr6FriAn interview with the international secretary for accountability and governance. April 6, 2018 by Kristin Ostensen
Commissioner Robert Donaldson is The Salvation Army’s international secretary for accountability and governance. He is responsible for the co-ordination of the four pillars of General André Cox’s Accountability Movement—finance, governance, child protection and impact measurement—with particular leadership of governance developments. Recently, he visited the Canada and Bermuda Territory and spoke with Geoff Moulton, editor-in-chief, about the need for greater transparency, measuring spiritual growth and moving away from a “command and control” model.
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Geoff Moulton: Tell me about your journey of officership. What led to your specialization in Salvation Army governance?
Commissioner Robert Donaldson: My wife and I started as corps officers with front-line community ministries. We’ve had three appointments in training colleges and I served two terms as training principal in two different territories. Then we went to South Africa where I was program secretary and chief secretary, and then to New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory as territorial commander. I was also chair of the International Moral and Social Issues Council (IMASIC).
The threads of my interest in governance came together years ago. I had a generous territorial commander who, after I’d struggled with heart issues and surgery in my 30s, allowed me to serve on the board of the Heart Foundation in New Zealand, which introduced me to new models of governance. In South Africa, where I was the Salvation Army representative for Africa’s largest theological college, new legislation meant we had to institute a board of directors. When I returned to New Zealand as territorial commander, I found that the registration document for The Salvation Army required a different way of operating than was in Orders & Regulations, because six trustees or directors were required to vote. The territorial commander didn’t have all power and authority. Those experiences, together with postgraduate studies, sparked my interest in governance and its implications for the Army.
GM: How did the General appoint you to this new role?
RD: Three years ago, while I was still territorial commander in New Zealand, General André Cox contacted me to begin a conversation about governance. It stemmed from the 2014 International Conference of Leaders in Singapore and the discussion about accountability. The General then allocated five General’s Consultative Councils for me, with the help of an external facilitator, to lead sessions around the principles and implications of governance for The Salvation Army. This led to my current appointment as the international secretary for accountability and governance, where I act as consultant to territories.
I have two colleagues who work with me in the same field. Our desire is not to impose, but to come alongside a territory, to assist them to review their regulatory environment, their registration document and their governance structure, and to see how they might be both compliant and effective in today’s environment. Every governance situation is different. The Army is in 128 countries, each with its own legislative environment and 47 different types of registration.
GM: How do you put good governance into practice?
RD: There are seven principles of governance, which we use to ask questions: How do we apply governance in your territory? How do we help you in your legal context? What are the constraints and requirements?
Overarching everything is spiritual leadership, discernment and wisdom. We want that in all our decision-making, and in how we lead. As a Salvation Army, we’re a big organization, but we’re more than just a corporate business.
The seven principles are:
1. Distributed authority, responsibility and liability. Authority in the Army has traditionally been centred in individuals. We’ve been talking for years about more consultative and servant leadership, about how to distribute that power more broadly.
2. Distinction between governance and management functions. Typically The Salvation Army has had those two enmeshed together. But if the same individuals are doing governance and management, that often doesn’t leave space for accountability.
3. Increased independence of governance structure. In The Salvation Army worldwide, the senior leaders are all officers, so where are the independent expert voices speaking? In Canada, you have highly effective advisory boards to make your decision-making processes more robust.
4. Gender equity. We have a clear theology of the equality of men and women, but we don’t have the best track record for practice. Through this governance process, we will advance gender equity in leadership.
5. Mutual accountability. The Salvation Army accountability systems are predominantly unidirectional. We need more transparency about policies and process in order to eliminate those that are needlessly secretive or ineffective. Let’s let people understand who we are so that accountability can go in all directions, instead of just up.
6. Mix of skills base and stakeholder representation. We need people with skills sitting in the boardroom. My team helps leaders work through the composition of a new board, identifying the key stakeholders and ensuring they get proper representation. It’s important to include local officers with governance experience, legal skill, financial skill and other abilities.
7. Mix of strategic and operational thinkers. Again, with board composition you need a balance: strategic thinkers to come up with innovative ideas and operational thinkers to make those ideas actionable.
GM: What are the strengths and weaknesses in the Army’s approach?
RD: There has been significant effort in recent years with increased transparency and reporting on financial statements, sometimes through legislated requirement. That’s a positive. On the other hand, we’ve been talking for 35 years about servant leadership, consultation and a different leadership style in the Army, but in some ways our structure has butted up against that desire. If we can get some flexibility into the structure, that will allow a different leadership style. There have been a lot of good developments along the way, but we have improvements to make in terms of our typical Salvation Army structure, and what might be considered good governance, even from a theological position.
GM: What steps can we take to become more transparent?
RD: In The Salvation Army we have to be careful with the whole command structure. I think we’ve all lived in corps where we’ve been conquering one mountain for five years with one officer and there’s a change and, all of a sudden, we’re climbing a new mountain. All the work that’s been done on this side has been lost.
As we look around in our corps and social institutions, we have superb local officers and employees—people who know their communities and understand the local needs. We need to include that voice more sharply in our strategy and direction. The direction should not be solely determined by someone who comes in and then gets reappointed in a few years’ time. That goes for every level in the Army.
My personal view is that our old “command and control” approach hasn’t reflected what Scripture talks about with the body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. I think we could do better.
GM: Corruption in many countries is endemic. How does the Army operate in those situations?
RD: It is a tension we live with, especially in countries where corruption is a normal way of doing business. How do we get things done, yet remain true to our calling? In places where there’s a high level of corruption, we must ensure that we have complaint and whistle-blower processes, with adequate independent investigation and follow up.
The Salvation Army has clear guidelines and robust disciplinary processes for officers. If followed properly there is consistency and fairness in the process, including points of appeal. In the majority of countries, human resources processes reflect the laws of the land, and principles of fairness, justice and reasonable expectation.
GM: In terms of impact measurement, how do we quantify spiritual transformation?
RD: This has been a hot topic among senior Army leaders. Albert Einstein said, “Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count.” Do we want to measure the transformation? Yes. How we actually achieve that is a challenge.
From an international perspective, there are areas where we do exceptionally well, such as our development projects. In countries where we have social service contracts with government or other partners, those contracts have rigorous reporting requirements.
We need to continue to preach the gospel and meet human need without discrimination. That’s when the transformation takes into consideration the whole person.
GM: What does Scripture have to say about accountability?
RD: The workbook Journey of Renewal outlines the different pillars of the accountability movement (accountability.salvationarmy.org) and has many relevant Scripture references. I would encourage everyone to read it. The International Theological Council is also working to shape a strong theology of governance for The Salvation Army.
This is an extremely exciting time for the Army. I believe including more voices in our governance models and opening the doors of transparency will strengthen our identity and make us more effective in building God’s kingdom.
Feature photo: © IR_Stone/iStock.com